Hello there Rosary lovers! In this post, we will ask: do all Popes become saints?
‘Every Pope is a saint for you Catholics!’
Let us suppose someone thinks this: that every Pope is apparently a saint as far as Catholics are concerned.
But this is nonsense. It is nonsense for a few reasons.
First, every single Pope is a SINNER. Just like the rest of us.
The Pope is not God on earth. The Pope is always, at best, just a man. A mortal man, with all our weaknesses.
‘The best of men are men at best.’
The Pope goes to Confession! Why would the Pope go to Confession if he was perfect and sinless?
Second, numerous Popes throughout history have not been very faithful to Catholic principles in terms of morality. Before a few hundred years ago, there were Popes who had concubines and children, something which they must have known went completely against Catholic teaching.
The worst Pope of all was probably Pope John XII, who reigned in the 10th century. After living an extremely unholy life, he died whilst sleeping with the wife of another man!
So, no, I’m afraid that the Pope is just like the rest of us: tempted to do evil, and like the rest of us, he is expected with the help of God’s grace to overcome temptations of all sorts.
And like all of us, the Pope is responsible for his own growth in holiness. He gets no automatic ticket to sainthood just because he is Pope.
Popes are weak men, like us all
Being Pope does NOT make a man free from temptation or sin, even very serious sin.
In fact, being Pope makes it MORE likely that you will experience very hard temptations, because the Devil will certainly target a Pope who is trying to live a righteous life.
Think of it: what better way for the Devil to gain temporary victory over the Catholic Church than to attack the earthly Head of the Church, the Pope, and watch him fall into sin?
We ought to pray for the Pope often, that his faith will not fail in times of temptation.
Even St Peter – the first Pope – needed Jesus to pray for him in this respect: ‘Simon, Satan wants to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.‘ (Luke 22:31).
And we recall that the first Pope (Peter) denied Christ three times, though he later repented. The apostle Paul even had to challenge Peter on at least one occasion, because Peter was apparently denying the Gospel with his actions (see Galatians 2).
And that’s just the first Pope, and perhaps the greatest Pope of all, a man who met and lived with Jesus personally!
What hope is there for all the other Popes?
‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible!’ – Jesus
‘But aren’t your Popes “infallible”?’
The Catholic Church does indeed teach the doctrine of Papal infallibility. However, this doctrine only has reference to a very specific aspect of the Papal ministry.
The Pope is only infallible when he proclaims with finality from ‘the chair of St Peter’ (excathedra) a teaching on faith or morality which must be believed by all the faithful.
Such an instance is very rare in Church history, and the common view is that the Pope has only done this twice in modern history:
1. 1854 when the Pope declared the dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception
2. 1950 when the Pope declared the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven.
Papal infallibility has absolutely ZERO reference to the Pope’s own personal character and morality. He may be a very pleasant person, he may be a saint, but he may also – unfortunately – be a public sinner.
Most Popes are NOT canonized saints
If you haven’t guess by now, it should come as no surprise that not all Popes become saints. In fact, only about 30% of all Popes throughout history have been saints.
The vast, vast bulk of Popes who are saints were those from the first few centuries. Part of this has to do with the fact that many of the early Popes were martyred. That’s right, you heard that right: martyred. Many Popes have been murdered for their faith.
The first Pope – Peter – was executed by the Roman State. He was crucified upside down, after requesting to be crucified in a different manner to that which Jesus had been subjected.
One of the most well-known of martyred Popes is perhaps St Pope Martin I, who was banished by the Byzantine Emperor, when Pope Martin would not agree with a heresy of the Byzantine Empire at the time. The banishment led to his death a short time later.
Like St Maximus the Confessor, Pope Martin stood tall against this heresy, and both Maximus and Martin were martyred. Pope Martin I is the last Pope thought to have been a martyr.
Obviously, when a Catholic is martyred for keeping the faith, they become an instant saint, and this is also true if that Catholic happened to have been Pope.
However, what is interesting is that when the time of persecutions died out, and when the Catholic Church began to hold greater influence throughout the Middle Ages, hardly any Pope became a saint. And this remained the norm until very recently.
Only a few recent Popes have been declared saints. Modern examples are: St Pope John Paul II, St Pope John XXIII, St Pope Paul VI and St Pope Pius X.
St John Paul II is a real favourite of Catholics. I must admit that when I watched video footage of him, it is the closest I have ever come to witnessing Christ walking around in human flesh on earth.
St Pope Paul VI is infamous for his 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae, where he upholds the Church’s 2000 year old viewpoint that abortion and the use of artificial contraception are absolutely incompatible with authentic human sexuality.
St Pope Pius X wrote a Catechism of the Catholic faith, which is popular amongst traditionalist Catholics.
St Pope John XXIII had the vision of the 2nd Vatican Council (1960s), which he announced very early in his Papacy, but did not live to see it finish. Vatican 2 was the largest attended Church Council ever in Catholic history, and has had an enormous impact on the Catholic Church and the world since the 1960s.
But there are plenty of modern Popes who are not canonized saints: Pope Pius XII, Pope John Paul I, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Pius XI, Pope Benedict XV, and so on.
So, please, don’t imagine that it’s easy to become a saint if you are Pope. It isn’t. It’s probably a good deal harder to become a saint if you are Pope than if you are just a regular Catholic.
“My brothers, let not many of you desire to be leaders, because you know that leaders will receive stricter judgment from God.” (James 3:1).
May God have mercy on us all and especially on the Pope.