The Catholic Thing
Burning Flax Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 25 February 2013

When I heard the news that Pope Benedict XVI had “resigned,” the first thing I thought was: Can’t be. Then: The media have been duped!

Alas. In the aftermath of the truth of the pope’s abdication, it is hard not to wonder about the impact of such a momentous step; as the Holy Father put it, “a decision of great importance for the life of the Church.”

It remains to be seen if his decision, nearly unprecedented as it is, will actually affect the course of Catholic history more than the usual transition from one pope to the next. This interregnum will be happier than most, because we’re not also mourning a pontiff’s death. Such somberness as will accompany the coming conclave arises from the solemnity always inherent in choosing a pope and – to a much lesser degree, I think – from the ripples spreading into the Catholic future of the stone Benedict has cast upon the waters.

My guess: the ripples will smooth out and flatten quickly. There have been six popes in my lifetime; now there’ll be a seventh. There have been a dozen U.S. presidents in that same time; in 2017, there’ll be a thirteenth. Sic transit Gloria mundi, as new popes have been reminded at their coronations, a piece of burning flax (or paper) held before them. Everything passes away, except the eternal Word of God.

Yet we must ask how changes in papal conduct since Paul VI have affected and will continue to affect not only the institution but also the men who occupy the Chair of St. Peter. 

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there have been ten popes. Here is a list of them, the length of each man’s reign, each pope’s age at death, and the length of the interregnum:


Pope            Reign (years)                           Age                Interregnum (days)


Leo XIII          2/20/1878 – 7/20/1903 (25)               93                                15

Pius X             8/4/1903 – 8/20/1914 (11)                 79                                14

Benedict XV   9/3/1914 – 1/22/1922 (7)                   67                                16

Pius XI            2/6/1922 2/10/1939 (15)                 81                                20

Pius XII          3/2/1939 – 10/9/1958 (19)                  82                                17

John XXIII     10/28/1958 – 6/3/1963 (5)                  81                                18

Paul VI            6/21/1963 – 8/6/1978 (15)                 80                                20

John Paul I      8/26/1978 – 9/28/1978 (1/12)            65                                18

John Paul II     10/16/1978 – 4/2/2005 (27)               84                                15

Benedict XVI  4/19/2005 – 2/28/2013 (8)       (abdicated at 85)                ??


  The Sistine Chapel awaiting the cardinal electors

From these data, what insights emerge? Not many. Of the ten, Benedict is the oldest pope since Leo; John Paul II reigned longest, and most (8) lived to (nearly) 80 or beyond.

The coming interregnum may be longer than usual, since Benedict steps down on Thursday and word is the conclave may not begin for another fifteen days. Perhaps that’s notable (although we may learn today – soon in any event – of an earlier date). Everybody has known about the abdication for several weeks now. How come all the cardinals aren’t already in Rome? One hears they’ll gather for the pope’s valedictory on the 28th.

Although popes actually seem to live longer than the average man (let alone men in high-pressure jobs), do the current  “duties” of the papacy place too great a burden upon the Vicar of Christ? A pope’s health and healthcare may be fabulous, but have recent popes been as focused on education and administration as earlier popes? I put duties in scare quotes, because I’m thinking of the contemporary demands of media and travel.

Paul VI, dubbed the “Pilgrim Pope,” was the first since 1809 to travel outside Italy, the first ever to travel outside of Europe, and the first to travel on an airplane. But he was just standing still compared to John Paul II, who traveled the equivalent of thirty-one circumnavigations of the globe.

Does this new “requirement” to be going just about everywhere pretty much all the time help or hinder evangelization? Does it tax a pope’s strength and his schedule too much? And – the new travel paradigm having been established – will the next pope be able to decline requests? Because every country with Catholics will be expecting a visit. Using the United States (24 percent Catholic) as a bottom line, there are about ninety such nations.

It’s fair to say that Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush – each president during the papacy of John Paul II – never came close to piling up frequent flier miles like the pope – nor should they have. The American leader must build alliances abroad, but his main responsibilities are at home. The pope, on the other hand, leads a people spread all over the earth, and there are few places where he doesn’t have a constituency. But does the pope need to travel as often as he does? Papal pilgrimages eat up big chunks of time and energy.

And when he’s travelling, he’s not doing other papal work. Is this why Leo XIII wrote 85 encyclicals and John Paul II wrote just 14; or Benedict XV wrote 12 in less time than it took Benedict XVI to write 3?

And do we really want our pontiffs spending so much time giving media interviews? Should a pope be clasping hands in photo ops with politicians, many of whom seek cover for their faithlessness?

Does book writing diminish a pope’s stature?

Benedict’s books have been superb, but, as with the travel, they take up time – not to mention that books lack the authority of encyclicals. Did our latest pope choose the right approach to educating generations of Catholics to come?

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, February 25, 2013
From Sixtus V, who died in 1590, to Leo XIII, who was elected in 1878, we had a virtually unbroken succession of popes, thirty of them, who had risen through the ranks of the Vatican bureaucracy and who were, by habit, taste and training, administrators. Even Benedict XIV, better remembered today as Prospero Lambertini, the great canon lawyer, fits this mould.

It is not unfair to describe the result as one of assiduous mediocrity. Even in Catholic countries, they had the same impact and the same popular appeal, as the average Secretary-General of the United Nations or President of the World Bank. Pio Nono was popular because he was pitied.

Meanwhile, we had the Church riven by the Thirty Years War, the Quietist controversy, the Jansenist heresy, the Gallican controversy, Josephism, the suppression of the Jesuits, the French Revolution and its aftermath, and the Risorgimento, in none of which can the Holy See be said to have distinguished itself.
written by Chris in Maryland, February 25, 2013
Mr. Paterson-Seymour:

I'm a little familiar with the writings of Pope Leo XIII, such as "Rerum Novarum," and also, his "Sapientiae Christianae," of which I learned here at Catholic Thing. The words of "Sapientiae Christianae" are stirring, not mediocre, for instance "Christians are born for combat."

So in at least one case, this is not mediocrity. Which is not to say that a Pope cannot be mediocre, or worse, malicious. But only to say that your premise seems to be mistaken. It seems you may be asserting that certain candidates for Pope today are unaccepatable, regardless of their virtue, but because of their pedigree?
written by Susan R Gerard, February 25, 2013
Encyclical vs. book: I have read a few of Benedict XVI's book but have not read an encyclical unless it had been assigned reading. If many RCs are like me (old lady, product of Catholic schooling through BA) books are a better avenue to us. SRG
written by Manfred, February 25, 2013
I am with you, Brad. What is the point of Popes collecting Frequent Flyer miles if, when they die, it is noted that TWO GENERATIONS of Catholics were not catechized? If from 1968 through 2012 Moral Theology was not taught? Of course, that is the whole point of the Divine Punishment, isn't it? Millions of Catholic souls are allowed to be led astray by their "shepherds" who were/are nothing more than "hirelings". We receive the shepherds we deserve.
written by Chris in Maryland, February 25, 2013
Susan's comments point to some larger issues:

(1) As Fr. Bramwell has pointed out - the Bishops of the US (and presumably in many places throughout the world) never read any communication from the Pope, no matter what written format it takes. I can tell you, I have repeatedly been offended (usually at Mass, in various parishes) by clerics quoting Pope Benedict when they want to contradict him...Bishops do this in different ways as well. In 8 years of faithful attendance at Mass, I have heard only one comment positively quoting Pope Benedict. This says something about us as Catholics, and it's not good.

(2) Perhaps many times the fault lies not with the writers (i.e., Popes), but the intended audience (The Church - Bishops; clergy; institutional voices at colleges, etc; and laity), who for various faults "do not have ears to hear."

(3) No written format, or other media format, will ever reach a Catholic ear if that Catholic is unwilling to take time to listen, and/or will not assume the attitiude of desiring to listen...out of Faith, Hope and Love for the person trying to speak to them.

As a final thought - I venture to say that many of us regularly attending Mass made sure they watched the Academy Awards, yet have made no time whatsoever to listen to the very important things Pope Benedcit has been telling us these last 2 weeks.
written by Tony Esolen, February 25, 2013
Michael, but we also, in those years, saw the rise and fall of many a nation and empire, and we did not suffer a single bad man to sit upon the chair of Peter. We saw the proliferation of all kinds of orders of priests and nuns, and the energetic evangelization of the New World. Perhaps the Holy Spirit had determined to give us mainly quiet Popes. After all, Jansenism was quashed, and I don't know that there was anything the Pope might have done to stop the Thirty Years' War.

That said, I dearly hope for the next Pope, Leo XIV, to be a fighter, as was his leonine predecessor. Not every task can be done by one man; I'm not going to fault John Paul II for not being superhuman. But we need a fighter now, one who will make people look upon the gentle scholar Benedict and say, "He wasn't really a Rottweiler, then, was he?" Nor has he been.

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