YOU don’t hear much about the “silence of Piux XII” any more. Not even the advent of the internet could do much to revive the KGB-authored calumny that the war-time pontiff had been indifferent to the fate of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. The online arena of brawling about anything and everything may even have killed off the historicity of the charges against Pius once and for all. In some ways, it was easier for haters to traduce him in a lasting way when the instruments at their disposal were slanted magazine essays and sensationalist books – almost all of which were written by post-war Marxists and secularists who were using the Shoah as a proxy to vent their hackneyed grievances with the Catholic Church. Their sort of Big Lie used to take time – conceivably, decades – to extradite from credulous minds. On the put-up or shut-up internet, however, the accusations against Pope Pius were exposed as meritless in short order.
I thought of Pius XII – died 1958 – and his constantly stalled canonisation cause when I read recently that a date had been set for the beatification of John Paul I (4 September, 2022). He held the job for only 33 days, his death making 1978 the Year of Three Popes. His two predecessors, Paul VI and John XXIII – the Popes of Vatican Council II – were canonised in 2018 and 2014 respectively. His successor, John Paul II, was canonised on the same day as John XXIII. This presto saint-making is itself extraordinary. Historically, the canonisation of popes is unusual but the canonisation of four in a row has no precedent later than the fifth century. Given that the many sainted Bishops of Rome in the first 400 years of the Church’s history were not exulted thus by a formal, centralised process – that wasn’t instituted until 1200 – it could be argued there is no precedent at all. Something odd and purposeful is happening here. But what? And why now?
To answer the first question, it is necessary to outline how a canonisation happens. There must be a genuine, appreciable cultus surrounding the candidate; he or she must be revered as a Christian of singular – even heroic – holiness, virtue and orthodoxy. The faithful are drawn to them, request their prayerful assistance and honour their relics. In most cases, this cultus will be a phenomenon occurring within a local or a national church. Beatification is the ritual by which the pope himself gives the Church’s approval for such veneration to be licit everywhere. There are quite exceptional figures whose cults are truly catholic from the start: Thérèse of Lisieux, Padre Pio and John Paul II are a few examples. Despite the sacredness of these formalities, they are overseen by human beings in a material world. Yes, having the prestige, resources, expertise and influence of Milan (Paul VI) or Venice (John XXIII and John Paul I) certainly doesn’t hurt. It would be a stretch to argue that Holy Fathers or not, these men showed greater heroism in virtue than Australia’s own Servant of God, Eileen O’Connor, whose cause is making its way through the requisites at a more traditional Roman pace: adagio. First in are not first served on the canonisation queue.
What is happening, arguably, is this: the ageing liberals who fear their domination of the Church is drawing to a close are hurriedly raising to the altars not only those who presided over the Council but also the harebrained, revolutionary idea that derailed its interpretation and reception (so far): ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ (invariably invoked to explain away its frequently inconvenient letter). The proofs are compelling: the snubbing of Pius XII – despite his colossal reputation – even as four of his successors were elevated; Pope Francis’ decision in 2013 to waive the unfinished protocols of John XXIII’s cause, thereby allowing the man who called the Council to be canonised on the same day as John Paul II, the man who sought to rein in its unauthorised excesses. The combination of ceremonies was a characteristically boorish Bergoglian touch: the hero of the ‘conservatives’ offset by the hero of the innovators.
As for why now, put it this way: it must have been easier for Francis to humiliate Benedict XVI by trashing the conciliatory Summorum Pontificum with the Cromwellian Traditionis Custodes when the predecessor who sanctioned the New Order Mass – Paul VI – was no longer just a baffled man who once likened himself to Hamlet but a saint for the ages. This doesn’t mean he was undeserving or that a conspiratorial plan is afoot. It does mean a battle for the meaning of history – specifically, continuity of authority in history – has been joined.