On the day the United States rightly celebrates its first native saint, Frances Cabrini, comes the news our current saintly pope, Benedict XVI, is planning his first papal visit to America next spring. Still, the positive (and negative) way this news has been received reminds me less of Cabrini, and more of today's other saint, Pope St. Nicholas the Great.
When Nicholas assumed the papal office (after the death of Benedict III) in 858, the rift between East and West was already significant, and while Nicholas wanted nothing more than reconciliation, he refused to do it with false ecumenism or at the price of Rome's primacy. As a contemporary historian wrote, "He gave orders to kings as if he were Lord of the world ... to good priests and lay people, he was kind and gentle and modest, to evil doers, he was terrible and stern." For example, when Ignatius was disposed as patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas excommunicated his successor Photius (on the grounds he wasn't even a priest) despite the opposition of the emperor Michael III and Photius' many supporters ... not to mention his own political advisers as well! Likewise, Nicholas went against convention when he excommunicated the bishops of Cologne and Trier when they supported the divorce of King Lothair II of Lorraine (who after hearing the news, initially sent an army to attack Nicholas only to later reconcile with his wife) but lifted the "excommunication" King Charles II had forced the French bishops to decree on his daughter, Judith, for marrying a mere peasant instead of a prince. Thus Nicholas became one of the first to uphold the fact that marriage should always be entered into freely and only out of Christian love.
But if Nicholas was good at justly throwing his papal weight around, he also proved his compassionate side; as the local bishop of Rome, Nicholas documented all the folks in his diocese who had fallen into poverty, decreeing that those who were disabled would be fed at home, while the able-bodied would lunch at the papal residence. "Beautiful in face and graceful in body, the friend of widows and orphans, the champion of all the people," was the way he was eulogized, but it is interesting to note that his detractors remained bitter 'til the end also, as some dissident clergy robbed him of all his money (which he had already bequeathed to the poor) as he lay on his deathbed, too weary to fight back.
When Boris, the newly baptized ruler of Bulgars, wrote to Nicholas for advice, his inspired response was called "a masterpiece of pastoral wisdom and one of the finest documents in the history of the papacy." Boris ultimately rejected the advice (which urged Boris to forsake superstitions, not to forcibly convert pagans, and use war and torture only as a last resort) and this rich young man decided to follow the lead of the worldly, ambitious Photius instead. Sadly, the same result still plagues our popes today: 80-year-old Benedict's 5-day 2-city (Washington, D.C. and New York) trip is already being criticized as only taking place in the eastern United States, and not including Boston (where the priest sex abuse scandal started), let alone the "wild" West of San Francisco or L.A. "This pope is not a barnstormer ... whereas John Paul's trips were about energy, Benedict's are about focus," wrote John Allen, a Vatican columnist, but despite Benedict's brilliant message, few worldly critics will listen to it, no matter how many cities he visits. For just as in the days of Nicholas or even Cabrini, few outside the poor and the lame—the Church's true treasures—have ears to hear.