Previously I explored the remarkable dual canonization of Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II. Not surprisingly, the same event has prompted its fair share of humorous takes, too. Will the Church simply go ahead and canonize every pope? While those particular links asks it satirically, the question does have some legitimacy.
All joking aside, one pope overlooked in the current papal-canonization-craze is Pius XI. This pope deserves renewed attention amid the just and extensive celebrations of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II. These popes’ legacies rest largely on their social witness. Each in his own way boldly proclaimed the Gospel and addressed the modern world’s questions and needs. In doing so they followed the path of their predecessors, of course, but most closely Pius XI. Born Achille Ratti and elected the 259th successor of St. Peter in February 1922, Pius XI reigned exactly seventeen years when he died in 1939. Thus his pontificate witnessed almost the entire period between the last century’s two World Wars. Like the Polish pope, Ratti was an avid hiker and mountain climber. Some video footage exists of his election and funeral, alluding to the future spectacles that Vatican II, St. John Paul II, and Pope Francis routinely display. Like his papal namesakes Piuses IX and X, Pius XI made ample use of encyclicals. Here the dimensions of his pontificate’s legacy become fully known.
When elected, Pius XI took as his motto: Pax Christi in Regno Christi (Christ’s peace within Christ’s Reign). To the extent that he is remembered, Pius XI’s legacy rests on three encyclicals: Casti Connubii (1930), a discussion of marriage; Quadragesimo Anno (1931), a commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and itself a statement of Christian social reconstruction; and Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), an explicit condemnation of the Nazi agenda. Each merits its own consideration, because each fulfills in some way Pius XI’s own motto. Our earthly lives don’t truly make sense until they stand ordered under Christ. A certain Augustinian/Anselmnian vision pervades Pius’s legacy: we must believe in order to understand. In like fashion, we must believe in order to act and live appropriately.
This trajectory began with Pius XI’s first encyclical: Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio (December 23, 1922). Devoted to explaining his own papal motto, the encyclical recounts the destruction wrought by the Great War. While decrying assaults on the Church itself, Pius does not stop with mere Catholic boosterism. The war’s catastrophic violence denigrated human dignity (see #21) and only through faith do people fully recover a sense of this (see #38). Thus the foundational principle of Catholic social thought is established in the aftermath of the First, not Second, World War. Throughout his pontificate Pius XI wrote encyclicals extolling Catholic intellectual leaders. In 1923, he began with St. Francis De Sales (Rerum Omnium Perturbationem) and St. Thomas Aquinas (Studorium Ducem). Across two weeks in May 1925, he canonized St. Therese de Lisieux, St. Madeline Sophie Barat, and St. Peter Canisius. These new saints illuminated the spiritual path Achille Ratti had taken himself, one of quiet, conscientious commitment to one’s faith and the Church. We know now, of course, that the Great War’s end only suspended tragic military and civilian deaths. The world would soon again experience the consequences of secular hubris.
Pius XI himself recognized the shift later in 1925 with his encyclical Quas Primas. Released on December 11, 1925, the encyclical established the Feast of Christ the King, now celebrated on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. In so doing Pius XI returned to his papal motto and asserted Christ’s spiritual and temporal authority (see #s 15 & 17). Christian faith is necessarily embodied, and thus the Church stands in the world, but free from control by the secular state (see #31). The laity especially stand to benefit from meditation upon Christ’s kingship. If Christ died for all, then, Pius concludes, “it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire” (#33). Christ must reign in our minds, wills, hearts, and bodies. Each faculty contributes to both spiritual sanctification and social justice, and serves, Pius XI prays, as evangelical examples to all non-Catholics. The peace that passes understanding, if authentic, moves beyond the individual to include others, not just Catholics but all peoples. After all, each person possesses intrinsic dignity given by God alone.
So when Pope Francis tells us “Confess Jesus. If we [the Church] don’t do that, we will be a pitiful NGO”, his words recall his Petrine predecessor almost one hundred years earlier. Social justice requires more than just spirituality, but actual orthodox faith. After all, Christ reigns our minds, hearts, and wills as well as our bodies. And in like fashion, that faith must not remain merely mental or spiritual. Our bodies put faith into action, and both Pius XI and Francis repeatedly ask that we do just that. Neither one of them suffered under the illusion that doing so would be easy.
Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.