God's Diplomats the 20th Century Has Marked a Growing Role in World Affairs for Leaders of the Catholic Church

The Florida Times Union, October 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

God's Diplomats the 20th Century Has Marked a Growing Role in World Affairs for Leaders of the Catholic Church


********** CORRECTION (10/5/99)

Irate nationalists tried to dump Pope Pius IX's body into the Tiber River at his funeral. Because of an editor's error, he was misidentified in a time line that appeared on Page H-1 Sunday.

**********

For the 2,000-year-old papacy, history's longest succession of power, the 20th century began with Leo XIII being carried on a portable throne around the Vatican, which he looked upon as his prison.

At the advent of the year 2000, the papal century reaches its apex with John Paul II, a million-kilometer jet-setting pope with pop star magnetism who has journeyed by popemobile, helicopter and supersonic Concorde to every corner of the world that he looks upon as his home parish.

The nine popes who occupied the throne of Peter in this century witnessed enormous advances in science and technology. But they also coped with the unparalleled human suffering wrought by two world wars, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, Soviet purges and almost ceaseless political, religious, ethnic and tribal slaughter.

Leo XIII was 93 when he died in 1903. He had reigned more than 25 years, longer than any of his successors this century. A skilled diplomat, Leo was preoccupied with regaining the papal states lost to the "Risorgimento," the surging nationalist movement that united Italy.

Pius IX, his predecessor, began the voluntary papal imprisonment when Victor Emmanuel marched into Rome and made it his capital. Pius refused to recognize the new Italy. At his funeral, irate nationalists tried to dump his body in the Tiber.

Despite the continuing isolation, Leo XIII won international respect by mediating a dispute between Spain and Germany and skillfully persuading Chancellor Otto Bismarck to curb anti-Catholic laws that closed seminaries, expelled the Jesuits and imprisoned many German priests.

Leo XIII created hundreds of new dioceses in Africa, India, Japan and the Americas. But, like John Paul II at the end of the century, he decried certain movements to adapt church doctrine to contemporary culture. At the same time, this scholarly pontiff, a Dante expert, opened the Vatican archives to scholars regardless of creed.

"The church has no secrets," he declared.

As the industrial revolution spawned sweatshop mills and factories, he became known as "The Workers' Pope" for handing down encyclicals insisting on their right to a just wage and to organize unions.

His successor, Pius X, softened the Vatican's stance against the Italian nation. He opposed "modernism" even more vigorously, branding it the "synthesis of all heresies." John XXIII, when he became pope in 1958, found himself on a Vatican list of prelates suspected of "progressive tendencies."

Although he owed his election to the Hapsburg Emperor Franz Josef's veto of the favorite candidate, Pius X abolished interference in papal elections by Catholic monarchs. He labored to avert Europe's headlong rush toward World War I, which broke out a few days before his death.

Pius X was canonized 40 years after he died, the first papal saint since Pius V, who excommunicated England's Queen Elizabeth in 1570.

On Benedict XV fell the burden of dealing with Catholic countries arrayed on opposite sides in World War I, each claiming a just war and praying for victory.

His declared neutrality and repeated protests against inhuman weapons, such as poison gas, angered both sides. The pontiff strove to aid war's innocent victims and offered a seven-point peace plan. It failed, but most of his proposals were included in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points.

Muslim Turkey erected a statue to Benedict in Istanbul, honoring him as "the benefactor of all people, regardless of nation or creed."

Pius XI ended six decades of papal self-imprisonment in 1929 by signing the Lateran Treaty with Benito Mussolini, which created the 108-acre Vatican state. …

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