Not So Saintly?

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Officially the rite is called Recognition. On April 4, a delegation of bishops and monsignors in full regalia arrived at Rome's Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls. They descended to the 6th century cathedral's crypt and were led to a white stone tomb. A casket was opened for them. At this point, wrote Monsignor Carlo Liberati of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, "there was a moment of profound and intense commotion." The body within, that of 19th century Pope Pius IX, was "almost perfectly conserved." Pius, known universally in Rome as Pio Nono, died in 1878. Yet here he was "in the beauty of his humanity, just as he is seen in the photographic documentation" of his deathbed, back when the entire city came "and admired the beautiful face of the Pontiff smiling in the sleep of death." Although Pius' face is now masked, Liberati's observations suggest that the old Pope is smiling still.

If so, he is in a minority. The April exhumation cleared the way for Pio Nono's beatification, scheduled for this Sunday. Beatification will confirm Pius' "heroic virtue," affirm a miracle (a nun's broken kneecap healed) and encourage Catholics to venerate his remains, which will be transferred to a clear crystal casket. The next step will be canonization, or sainthood.

Although the Vatican will not admit it, Pio Nono is a last-minute substitution for a controversial successor, Pius XII. The beatification of the later Pius was to have balanced that of Pope John XXIII, the liberal hero who called the Second Vatican Council. The past 40 years, however, have seen an unabating storm of complaint that Pius XII did not do enough to oppose the Holocaust. Postponing Pius XII's "cause" and replacing it with that of Pio Nono--also a conservative favorite--must have seemed a good idea at the time.

But in actuality the Vatican has exhumed far more than just a venerable body. "I am appalled that the Catholic Church wants to make a saint out of a Pope who perpetuated...an act of unacceptable intolerance," declared a professor named Elena Mortara in Rome. Pio Nono, it turns out, had a Jewish problem of his own. Mortara is the great-grandniece of Edgardo Mortara, who was taken from his Jewish parents at age six in 1858 by the papal police and raised--in part by Pius himself--as a Catholic. The incident typified Pius' ham-fisted treatment of the Jews, and many feel his beatification contradicts Pope John Paul II's embrace of that people and his apologies for their treatment by church members. Israel's Ambassador to the Holy See, Aharon Lopez, while stressing that beatification is a church "internal matter," told TIME that Pius' might have "implications" for Israeli-Vatican cooperation in "bridging difficult periods" of history.

Pius, in fact, is one of the modern church's problematic giants. His papacy as a whole was far more controversial than Pius XII's. He was the longest-serving Pope since St. Peter, reigning 32 years from 1846 to his death. He lost the Papal States, the Vatican's worldly kingdom. He promulgated two of Catholicism's most triumphal doctrines--the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and papal infallibility. He pioneered the papal personality movement that John Paul embodies so brilliantly. Many historians believe he created the modern papacy.

Yet some also think his narrowness crippled his church. Pius reigned just as the old order in the West was giving way to new notions of God, the state and the citizen. His response--a wholesale rejection of modernity--dominated Catholicism for almost a century after his death and continues to color its present. A true reactionary who saw the secular state, and indeed civil rights, as satanic manifestations, he made it difficult for generations of believers to claim intellectual independence or integrity. Says journalist-historian Garry Wills, who savages Pius in his best seller Papal Sins: "He was a disaster, and his influence has been bad ever since. If you beatify him now, there will be a whitewashing of him, which will involve the church in more dishonesty." Pius is the heavy in the well-reviewed The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, by Brown University historian David Kertzer, which is being adapted for Broadway by playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy). Even the author of the definitive, three-volume Pius biography, Jesuit historian Giacomo Martina, does not favor his subject for sainthood.

The Vatican has long been aware of Pius' explosiveness as a candidate for canonization. As Kenneth Woodward reports in his book Making Saints, the first time Pius' cause was formally addressed, every firsthand witness criticized his papacy's conduct. His beatification was repeatedly postponed, most recently in the 1980s, when churchmen apparently deemed it not to be "opportune." That seems to have changed. It will be interesting to see whether the upcoming ceremony will end the debate or spark an even more thorough public airing of this larger-than-life Pope's remarkable career.

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