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VATICAN LETTER Oct-31-2008 (900 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Unforgettable: Popes remain influential figures after their deaths

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A confluence of anniversaries this fall has turned the Vatican's attention to deceased popes, who still loom large in the church's living memory.

In a seemingly continual procession of conferences, films, liturgies, speeches, books and articles, four late pontiffs in particular -- Popes Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II -- have been celebrated, praised, defended and, in some cases, proposed for sainthood.

On some days, the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, has carried more news about departed popes than on the current occupant of the chair of Peter.

Pope Benedict XVI has been in the forefront of the commemorations, giving speeches and celebrating special Masses for his predecessors, and drawing frequent lessons from their teachings.

Why does the church keep looking back?

"Because tradition is fundamental for the church. We look to the past so that we can look to the future," said Giovanni Maria Vian, director of the Vatican newspaper.

For the church, he said, the teachings of previous popes don't merely have historical meaning, but are still alive.

The period of August-October this year marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius and the election of Pope John, and the 30th anniversary of the "year of three popes," with the death of Pope Paul, the election and death of Pope John Paul I, and the election of Pope John Paul II.

But the memorializing really began in July, with the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul's encyclical, "Humanae Vitae" ("Of Human Life"). Pope Benedict not only strongly defended its teachings against birth control, but also went out of his way to praise Pope Paul's courage and "far-sightedness" in promulgating a position that would inevitably be criticized by many.

In September a massive campaign began to highlight the holiness of Pope Pius and defend him from accusations of failing to do enough to save Jews during World War II.

A committee of Catholic leaders was formed to promote his legacy, several conferences -- including one with Jewish participants -- were organized, dozens of articles appeared in Vatican publications, and a photo exhibit went on display next to St. Peter's Square.

Pope Benedict celebrated a 50th anniversary memorial Mass for Pope Pius, commending not only his wartime actions but also his innovative leadership in areas of liturgy, biblical interpretation and ecclesiology.

In October, it was Pope John Paul II's turn, with major celebrations, conferences and papal messages marking the anniversary of his election in 1978, culminating in the premiere screening at the Vatican of a new film about his life.

Later in the month, Pope Benedict led memorial prayers at the tomb of Pope John, whose election in 1958 was marked in countless Italian newspaper and magazine articles, as well as a new film and a popular TV miniseries.

Increasingly, the memory of deceased popes has been kept alive through sainthood causes. The cause of Pope Pius is perhaps the most well-known and the most controversial, with his cause currently on hold during a "period of reflection," but sainthood causes are in fact active for all of the previous five popes.

Pope John was beatified in 2000. Pope John Paul I's cause passed a recent milestone, with approval of the diocesan phase of investigation. Pope Paul's cause has also reached the Vatican. And the "santo subito!" -- "sainthood now!" -- movement is still pushing for the quick beatification of Pope John Paul II.

The push to canonize deceased popes is a relatively recent trend. Over the last 700 years, only two popes were declared saints. Yet today, it seems almost a given that sooner or later a pope will be proposed for sainthood after his death.

Luigi Accattoli, a respected Italian journalist who has covered the Vatican for decades, wrote after the death of Pope John Paul II that papal canonizations were "pointless" and that the church would better spend its energy by looking for less renowned saints.

He said the starting gun for the papal "race for sainthood" was fired by Pope Paul, when at the end of the Second Vatican Council he simultaneously launched the causes of Popes Pius and John.

There's no doubt recent popes have been holy men, he said. But sometimes rushing to proclaim sainthood for a pope is simply a way for "the Roman hierarchy to canonize itself," he said.

Accattoli's views are not shared widely by Vatican saint makers. Jesuit Father Paolo Molinari, who until recently was the postulator for the cause of Pope Paul, said it was a misconception that "every pope today has to be named a saint."

"All these recent popes have not been proposed for sainthood just because they were popes, but because people recognized in them an excellent way of living as Christians," he said.

The primary requisite for opening any sainthood cause is "fama sanctitatis," Latin for "reputation of holiness," which must be recognized widely among the faithful. Some think that tends to favor popes, who live on the world stage.

But Father Molinari said global celebrity does not guarantee a reputation for holiness, even for popes.

"It can work both ways," he said.

On Nov. 2, All Souls' Day, Pope Benedict was to pray in the grottos beneath St. Peter's Basilica in memory of all his predecessors -- another sign that popes may be gone, but they are not forgotten.


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