July and August are hot months of the year for the northern hemisphere, and the summer heat always weighs more heavily on those people who are sick or older. That’s why August is traditionally (and somewhat bluntly) known as the “dying month” in Rome, at least in the years before air conditioning.
Since feast days for the saints are usually assigned to the date of death, it’s not surprising that there are more individual saints and blesseds on the Church’s calendar in those two months than in the other months of the year. But for some reason, the month of July beats out the month of August in one category: the number of holy popes. There are nine popes who are saints or blesseds in August, but ten in the Church’s calendar for July. Who were those men?
On July 3, we remember Pope Saint Leo II, who died in the year 683. Most Catholics have probably never heard of him, but the Church honors him particularly for two reasons. First, he condemned a heresy called Monothelitism which was spreading through the Church at the time and causing confusion. Second, he publicly recognized and condemned the fact that his predecessor, Pope Honorius (who is certainly not a saint of the Church) did not speak up against that heresy.
On July 7, Blessed Benedict XI (1240-1304) is remembered by the Church. Not only was Benedict a wise man, a great preacher, and a successful Church leader in many positions before his election, he was determined to live a humble, penitential life even as pope. Soon after becoming pope, his mother showed up to see him and was very elegantly dressed. Too elegantly dressed, the pope thought. Benedict insisted that she go home and change into more typical clothing before he would see her. His personal emphasis on moderation and simplicity was the hallmark of his unfortunately short reign.
On July 8, both Saint Adrian III (d. 885) and Blessed Eugene III (d. 1151) are listed on the calendar. Adrian reigned for only a year, but he was a strong leader who sought to protect Christians from a potential Muslim invasion of Europe. Eugene was a Cistercian monk before becoming pope and was a disciple of the influential Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Like Bernard, Eugene sought to reform abuses within the Church; for that reason, his reign was marked by outbreaks of violence, often from those whose financial success was based on perpetuating those abuses of Church power. But Eugene was a likeable, generous man who continued to live like a monk, even when he was pope.
On July 11, we remember an early pope: Pius I (d. 155). Records from the early days of the Church are sometimes sparse because the Roman empire did not only persecute Catholics by killing them, but it also destroyed their property, written records, and copies of Scripture. However, we know that Pius responded to curb multiple heresies that were spreading in the Church while he was pope and that he died a martyr for the faith.
On July 17, Pope Saint Leo IV (d. 855) is celebrated. When Leo was elected pope, the city of Rome had been repeatedly attacked by Muslim Arabs and was almost defenseless. Leo recognized that the safety of the people of Rome was a priority, so he ordered a new wall to be built around the city. He also fortified fifteen towers around Rome. This construction became known as the Leonine City in his honor. Not only did the people of Rome love Leo for his strong leadership and his dedication to protecting the city, they publicly recognized him as a miracle-worker through his prayers even during his lifetime.
On July 19, we remember Saint Symmachus (d. 514), who was physically attacked by the forces of an anti-pope soon after his election. After a violent and complicated political controversy, Symmachus was finally recognized as the true pope and was able to do what is typically expected of a pope: defend the teachings of the Church against the false teachings of the day.
On July 27, Pope Saint Celestine I (d. 432) is included in the Church’s calendar. Celestine was a strong leader who opposed the heretical teachings of Nestorius and Pelagius, and one of his writings became a founding document for early canon law.
On July 28, Saint Victor I (d. c. 199) is remembered. Although the Catholic Church was technically illegal in the Roman empire at the time, the persecution of Catholics appears to have abated during most of his reign. Victor was able to focus on trying to settle a serious problem that vexed the Church for centuries afterward: what is the proper date to celebrate Easter? Victor’s writings were praised by Saint Jerome of Stridon, a brilliant scholar who was not an easy man to impress. Although we don’t have all the details, it is clear from early records that Victor died as a martyr.
On July 29, we remember Blessed Urban II (d. 1099). Urban was a monk and then a cardinal before becoming pope, and he was elected during a particularly tumultuous time. Violence, feuding, and an anti-pope (who, of course, claimed to be the true pope) forced Urban to leave Rome. But even though his enemies forced him into debt and exile, Urban continued to act like a pope. He held councils and insisted on greater ecclesiastical discipline. When Christians living in the Holy Land were attacked, he called for a Crusade to protect Christians from Muslim violence. He even tried to make peace with the Orthodox Church and bring about a reconciliation soon before his death.
What do these ten popes teach us about the papacy and about holiness? Each man faced different challenges as pope based on circumstances outside his control, such as political unrest, power struggles, false teachings, and even simple disagreements between faithful Catholics. But each man impressed his contemporaries with his holiness, faithfulness, and dedication to leading the Church of Christ. For that, we can honor them in July.