For a non-Catholic, I have an irrational interest in the papacy, especially the recent guys. When I was a kid, I always got my World Almanac and once a year, at least, looked at the lists of all of the popes, which included the antipopes, those popes opposed by some faction of the church. As you see from this list from the Catholic Encyclopedia, there were a lot of them, and they tended to be in chronological clusters.
Limiting the discussion to the popes in my lifetime:
Pius XII (1939-58) – I don’t remember him specifically – I was a child when he died – but I had heard for years he had done little or nothing concerning the Holocaust during World War II. Clearly, he said and did far too little, though what he DID say occasionally riled up both the Germans and Mussolini in Italy.
John XXIII (1958-63) – My favorite Pope. I’m shocked, looking back, how short his tenure was. As he was fairly advanced in age, he had the Second Vatican Council convened fairly early on, which “would make a new start toward achieving Christian unity by putting aside the hostilities of the past and acknowledging the Catholics’ share of responsibility for the scandal of a divided Christianity… He received Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant religious leaders with extreme cordiality and made sure they were invited to send observers to the Vatican Council. He removed certain words offensive to Jews from the official liturgy of the church.”
Paul VI (1963-78) – If I were to make a comparison that American political science buffs might appreciate, Paul carried out many of John’s wishes in the same way Lyndon Johnson was able to fulfill John Kennedy’s civil rights agenda. “From the very outset of his years as pope, Paul VI gave clear evidence of the importance he attached to the study and the solution of social problems and to their impact on world peace… Such problems dominated his first encyclical letter…, and later became the insistent theme of his celebrated Populorum progressio (“Progress of the Peoples”), March 26, 1967. This encyclical was such a pointed plea for social justice that in some conservative circles the pope was accused of Marxism.”
The singer Donovan took an unkind swipe at this pope, Poke at the Pope [audio and lyrics].
John Paul I (1978). There was an 88-day New York City newspaper strike in 1978, which shut down the New York Times, the Daily News and the Post from mid-August through early November. It missed, among other things, the Yankees repeating as World Series champions, and the entire papacy of John Paul I. Of course, his short tenure has led to much speculation that he had been poisoned. He was the last Italian pope.
John Paul II (1978-2005) – Over time, I have developed real mixed feelings about him. On one hand, he worked toward bringing down Communism and made efforts towards Christian reconciliation with the Jews. Conversely, he was lousy on the sex abuse issue and is retrograde regarding the status of women. Benedict XVI (2005—2013). I worried about him even before he took office, as his conservative rhetoric as cardinal preceded him. My concern proved to be warranted with regard with gays, e.g.
His greatest achievement, besides being the first pontiff on Twitter, and an appreciation of art, was becoming the first pope since the Gutenberg Bible was printed to reign in office, right after he received news of a warrant for his arrest. It already has made it into MAD magazine, and, of course, the Onion.
The first thing I wrote on Facebook after the surprising announcement was to suggest that the next guy will be from the Americas, Africa, or Asia. The cardinal from Ghana had spent time in the Albany area. But will the faithful accept a Hispanic, a black or an asian? I think we’re about to find out.