Probably the least studied data in the Church today is the disproportionate number of canonized popes during the early years of Christianity as opposed to the latter years. Take for instance, the first 100 popes. A whopping 70 popes were canonized out of the first 100 popes. Obviously, that means 70 percent of all popes from 33 A.D. to 827 A.D. were Saints. That's good! That’s really good! Moreover, it translates into holier bishops, priests, deacons, monks, consecrated virgins and laity. In other words, it has a trickledown effect. In no small measure does this explain the reason behind the multitude of conversions and the influence the Catholic Church enjoyed during those years.
However, you will see that the number of canonized popes dwindles after the first one hundred. With the second set of 100 popes from 827 A.D. to 1362 A.D., there are only 6 canonized popes. That's right! Only six! And as for the remaining 66 popes from 1362 to present day, only 2 made it to Sainthood: St. Pius V (1566-72) and St. Pius X (1903-1914).
Below, see what may be the reason the first Christian millennium was front-loaded with canonized popes and why the second millennium wasn't.
Three Practices That Made a Difference:
So what explains the difference? Consider a point a view advanced by a book entitled, "Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church." The author was Fr. Antonio Rosmini and the year the book was published was in 1832. I happen to believe it was prophetically insightful. Below are three points he raised in short:
1. Formation of priests: Bishops used to personally teach the seminarians and form the priests. The full force of the Sacrament of Holy Orders was brought to bear on their spiritual formation. Indeed, the house of the bishop was the seminary. And from his house came forth a constant supply of holy men.
2. Standards for the priesthood: Holiness, even more than theological learning, was a paramount consideration in choosing candidates for the priesthood. The greatest emphasis was not on academic learning as it is today; rather, it was first and foremost on holiness. A consensus among the Church Father's was that the ordainer (or bishop) who ordained a man unworthy of the priesthood was to share in his sins. Choosing a worthy candidate was that serious. Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical on the priesthood quoted the Lateran Council as saying, "If it should ever be impossible to maintain the present number, it is better to have a few good priests than a multitude of bad ones."
Furthermore, holiness was considered to be the primary source through which the Christian knew God. It was the main font of knowledge. Two excellent examples of this spiritual law (so forgotten today) can be found as recent as the 1800's. St. John Vianney, an unlearned priest who struggled just to get through his seminary training, is now the Patron Saint of Priests. And the most recently declared Doctor of the Church, St. Therese the Little Flower, who never received the rigor of theological training, inspired countless people with her spiritual and theological insights.
3. The Main Source of Learning: During the first centuries of the Church, the bible was the book! It took center stage. Indeed, for a long time the Word of God was the very soul of formation for the clergy. As one Benedictine brother said, "First comes the Word of God that addresses me, strikes me, challenges me, wounds me, and judges me, but also heals and frees me."
The Fathers of the Church were conscious of the fact that the Catholic Church was a continuation of the Old Testament Church. Other intellectual disciplines were aids to knowing Scripture to be sure, but the emphasis was certainly on the Word of God; both in the Old and New Testaments. As such, the Gospels and the Church herself are better understood when the Old Testament is seen as our own family history.
From the emphasis on Scripture as the primary tool of learning came an orientation towards the salvation of souls as the first and foremost goal of instruction. Education in general and especially theological learning was a means to an end. All learning, all training and all endeavors were subordinated to this end; that is, to the sanctification of souls!
These three considerations, it has been argued, played no small role in making great popes. And great popes, in turn, have had a profound effect on the Church at large. Consider the following illustration:
If the priest is a Saint, his parish will be holy;
If the priest is holy, his parish will be good;
If the priest is good, his parish will be nice;
If the priest is nice, the parish will be ungodly.
If this is true for a priest and his parish, imagine what one saintly pope and bishop can do for the Church! Actually, we know what it did in the first Christian millennium. The results were impressive. But before the Church can benefit from holy men, men have to be made holy. And during that first millennium, there were spiritual principles and pastoral practices which led to 70 out of the first 100 popes being canonized a Saint. This is what 70 canonized popes can tell you!