Burning Flax


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 a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer).



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