Is it too soon to canonise 20th-century popes?

While they live, all popes are styled “Holiness”. The mode of address is a sort of “official” holiness, tied to the office of the Bishop of Rome. It tells us very little about the character of the man who holds the office.

In fact, relatively few of the men who kept the style while they lived have been raised to the honour of the altars after they died.

Recent Church history, however, has seen something of a glut of papal canonisations – that’s the name for the official juridical act by which the Church infallibly proclaims that a person is a saint in heaven, and may be called upon to intercede for the intentions of those who pray to them – including, most recently, St John XXIII and St John Paul II.

One other 20th-century pope, Pius X, was canonised in 1954. Another 20th-century pope, Paul VI, is scheduled for canonisation on October 14. Blessed Paul VI is controversial in his own right, and known best for his encyclical letter Humanae vitae, on the regulation of birth, and for his reform of the liturgy used in most Catholic churches throughout the world.

It’s interesting to note that Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control did less than people often realise, while the liturgical reforms – widely believed to have been a mere translation of the prayers of the Roman Missal and rearrangement of the parts of the Mass – were actually much more sweeping.

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