Once upon a time: Holy Mother Church blessed with great popes

The best pontiffs have made significant contributions through teaching, acts of initiative, wisdom

I love popes, especially holy and great ones with which Holy Mother Church, the body of Christ, has been blessed during the modern times of pontificates beginning with Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878) and continuing to the present: Leo XIII (1878-1903); St. Pius X (1903-1914); Benedict XV (1914-1922); Pius XI (1922-1939); Pius XII (1939-1958); Blessed John XXIII (1958-1963); Paul VI (1963-1978); John Paul I (September 1978); Blessed John Paul II (1978-2005); Benedict XVI (2005-Feb. 28, 2013).

And I like stories about our Holy Fathers; they come from many sources. On the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, the Gospel for this year of “C” readings gave a real insight into the spirituality of our first pope, St. Peter.

A successful commercial fisherman, he and some others had fished throughout the night and had caught nothing. Peter, less a saint than Simon Bar Jona, probably would have balked at the instructions from their new leader, Jesus of Nazareth, who certainly was no fisherman (for fish!). Can we not hear Peter thinking to himself, “Who does our Rabbi think he is? Andrew, James, John, and I are all seasoned commercial fishermen with a combined experience of nearly a century and this fellow is telling us how to fish!” But Peter, already along in his practice of respect for authority replies, “Lord, we have fished all night long and have caught nothing but at your command I shall lower the nets.” And Peter did lower the nets, and his obedience was rewarded by Jesus.

I want to fast forward to the 19th century and to Pope Leo XIII. Gioacchino Vincenzo Pecci, was born on March 2, 1810, in Carpento, central Italy. He was the sixth of seven sons of Col. Ludovico Pecci and Anna Prosperi Buzi. They were noble families but by no means wealthy. From 1818-1824, Gioacchino Vincenzo Pecci studied at the Jesuit college in Viterbo and then at Rome in the Roman College for the next eight years.

He matriculated at the Academia dei Nobili Eccleseastici, studying theology, civil and canon law. In 1837 (the same year Nashville became a diocese), he was ordained and was appointed a monsignor. Pope Gregory XVI had noticed the courage of Monsignor Pecci during a cholera epidemic and in 1838 the pope appointed him as apostolic delegate to Benevento in the papal states.

Among the problems he faced was controlling bandits. By his capable administration and economic improvements, building roads and establishing a savings bank for the farmers of Perugia, he won the affection of the people. He was sent as Nuncio to Belgium in 1843. His three years there were of considerable importance in developing his outlook as pope.

When Pius IX died, the archbishop became papabile as a candidate for the moderates. He was elected pope on the third ballot with 44 of the 61 votes. He took the name: Leo XIII. Although his pontificate was predicted to be brief and transitional (people thought that his predecessor’s time as pope, 32 years, was very long), he served as pope for more than 25 years (if God has a sense of humor, this situation would be a time for the Holy Spirit to chuckle).

Pope Leo XIII ranks as one of the most significant Holy Fathers in recent times because of his numerous teachings, acts of initiative, and exceptional prestige. Patient, conciliatory, and wise in choosing opportune solutions to problems and then abiding by them, the pontiff displayed a strong will and calm energy in his actions. In line with Blessed Pius IX, he favored devotion to the Sacred Heart and nine encyclicals concerned devotion to the Blessed Virgin and to the rosary. An encyclical letter issued in 1882 renewed the Franciscan Third Order.

He favored and sponsored so many projects that it would take a book instead of this column to treat them all. Let me state that in my opinion his greatest gift to the modern world was his famous encyclical, Rerum Novarum (May 15, 1891). Despite setbacks, Pope Leo XIII’s pontificate planted seeds that eventually have grown into an abundant harvest.

I would suggest that each day during Lent we study something about the popes since St. Pius V (1566-1572). That would give us a pope a day to learn about, taking us well into Holy Week. By then we might have another successor of St. Peter, whom we can get to know and love. n


Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general of the diocese and the pastor of Holy Ghost parish in Knoxville.

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