The National Catholic Review

I am a "liberal" Catholic.  I am also an admirer of Blessed John Paul II. 

Those two things may seem at odds, especially with the growing consternation, in some circles, about the perceived “rush” of his beatification.  In short: the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints waived the normal five-year waiting period before beginning his process or “cause.”  While this is not unprecedented (Mother Teresa was also fast-tracked), the space between his death and the beatification certainly is.  There have also been legitimate concerns raised over whether he deserves to be honored in light of what are seen as his errors as pope.  In addition to vociferous complaints about his handling of sexual abuse crises worldwide, many have objected to his longstanding support of the now-disgraced founder of the Legion of Christ, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, who was later revealed to be among the worst of all abusive priests.  (Supporters answer that John Paul did what he could about the abuse; that he was elderly and infirm; and that he was duped by Maciel.)

As for the rush, and as someone who has written about the saints, I’m in favor of every candidate being subject to the same careful process of examination.  For one thing, it’s unfair to favor someone simply because he or she is more well known. For another, it may give the impression of corners being cut (particularly when some of those overseeing the process were put in their positions by the candidate himself), possibly sullying the saint’s reputation for future generations.  On the other hand, the Vatican is quite clearly responding to the will of the people, millions of whom are devoted to Pope John Paul.  (“Santo subito!” they shouted at his funeral.)  Like Mother Teresa, he is an object of what theologians call "popular devotion."  Ironically, some of the same people concerned about the rush to canonization are those who also believe that the Vatican needs to “listen” more carefully and more often to the voice of the "People of God."  So: they’re listening. 

More importantly, a miracle attributed to the late pope’s intercession (that is, to his prayers from his post in heaven to God) has been authenticated by the Vatican.  So God seems to be in favor of the rush.  That should trump most people's concerns.

As for disagreements over his papacy, even I had my differences with Pope John Paul II, technically my former boss.  (Who doesn't disagree with the boss from time to time?)  He wasn’t always the biggest fan of the Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits, my religious order), though some of his suspicions seem to have originated with some of his advisers.  When, in an unprecedented move in 1981, he suddenly removed Pedro Arrupe, the beloved superior general of the Jesuits, from his post, a great many Jesuits were both dismayed and angered.  John Paul, suspicious of the Jesuits’ work in “liberation theology” (an approach that emphasizes the liberation of the poor from suffering, as Jesus had), was apparently told by some advisers that the Jesuits would be disobedient after his public sacking of Arrupe.  We were not.  Over the years, multiple sources have told me that John Paul was surprised by our fidelity--and pleased.  It changed his view of the Jesuits.  In later years, he visited the ailing Arrupe before the Jesuit’s death.  (For the record, I believe Father Arrupe was a saint.)

Nonetheless, I’m an admirer of John Paul, a person whom the philosopher Hegel would doubtless call a “world-historical” figure.  How can this be?  To explain that, let me point out two things that have been largely missing from some of the critical commentary. 

First, the saints weren’t perfect.  They were human.  Holiness always makes it home in humanity.  And the saints, deeply aware of their own faults, would be the first ones to admit this.  Sanctity does not mean perfection.  The notion that a saint would make mistakes—even big ones—seems not to have occurred to a few people.  To err. after all, is human.  Can his supporters admit that John Paul was human and made mistakes--even big ones?  And can his critics forgive him the errors he made during his time on earth?

Second, and perhaps more importantly, you don’t have to agree with everything a saint said, did or wrote to admire him (or her).  One of my favorite saints is Thomas More, the 16th-century English martyr, who most people know from the play (and film) “A Man for All Seasons.”  But I don’t agree with--to put it mildly--his support of the wholesale burning of “heretics” (i.e., non-Christians).  We part company on that.

One Vatican official stated recently that Pope Benedict XVI is beatifying his predecessor for who he was as a person, not for what he did during his papacy.  In short, he’s not being named a “blessed” for his decisions as pope.  This makes sense.  Beatification (and later, canonization) does not mean that everything he did as pope is now somehow beyond critique.  (Any more than everything St. Thomas More did is beyond critique: Should we believe that heretics should be burned because More has been canonized?)  On the other hand, that line of thinking is a little mystifying: for you cannot separate a person’s actions from his personal life. 

But the emphasis on the personal life is an important one.  The church beatifies a Christian, not an administrator.  In that light, John Paul II clearly deserves to be a blessed and, later, a saint.  Karol Wojtyla certainly led a life of “heroic sanctity,” as the traditional phrase has it; he was faithful to God in extreme situations (Nazism, Communism, consumerism); he was a tireless “evangelist,” that is, a promoter of the Gospel, even in the face of severe infirmity; and he worked ardently for the world’s poor, as Jesus asked his followers to do.  The new blessed was prayerful, fearless and zealous.  He was, in short, holy.  And, in my eyes, anyone who visits the prison cell of his would-be assassin and forgives the man is a saint.

So, after his beatification I’ll be praying to the late pope for his intercession.  From his place in heaven, he’ll understand if I didn’t always agree with him on every issue or decision.  He won’t be worried about that.  In fact, in company with Jesus, Mary and the saints, that will be the last thing that Karol Wojtyla will be thinking about. 

Blessed John Paul II, pray for me.

James Martin, SJ


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Anonymous | 4/27/2011 - 12:14am
@ Anne: This may more directly answer your question. More from St. Alphonsus Ligouri

"According to St. Thomas, the order of the divine law requires that we mortals should be saved by means of the saints, in that we receive by their intercession the help necessary for our salvation. He then puts the objection, that it appears superfluous to have recourse to the saints, since God - is infinitely more merciful than they, and more ready to hear us. This he answers by saying: 'God has so ordered, not on account of any want of mercy on his part, but to keep the right order which he has universally established, of working by means of second causes. It is not for want of his mercy, but to preserve the aforesaid order in the creation.'
In conformity with this doctrine of St. Thomas, the Continuator of Tourneley and Sylvius write that although God only is to be prayed to as the Author of grace, yet we are bound to have recourse also to the intercession of the saints, so as to observe the order which God has established with regard to our salvation, which is, that the inferior should be saved by imploring the aid of the superior. 'By the law of nature we are bound to observe the order which God has appointed; but God has appointed that the inferior should obtain salvation by imploring the assistance of his superior.'
Jack Barry | 4/26/2011 - 11:52pm
An inscribed banner should hang over Blessed John Paul II's tomb to ensure that none forget the words he spoke so clearly in April 2002:  
“Labeling child sexual abuse an ‘appalling sin’ and a crime, John Paul II told U.S. prelates there is no place in the priesthood and religious life ‘for those who would harm the young’.”  
 A special papal partitioning privilege is being applied as the Vatican has explained. In assessing holiness, the spiritual, virtuous part of the pope is isolated for scrupulous examination while the ''errors'' and ''mistakes'' as they are called in the pope's papacy are separated out and ignored.  Other people are usually assessed differently, as units.   

The miracle as described so far raises questions.  We have been assured on the authority of the French bishops' conference that the Parkinson's, correctly diagnosed and vanished, did not recur as rumored in 2010.  In this matter, there's no listening by the Vatican to the voice of those ''people of God'' who know a lot about such things.  The listening is apparently limited to the faction that speaks desired words, such as ''Santo subito''.      
Anne C. #5  -  Mothers are unique but not in the their disgust felt over beatifying a man with the known record of John Paul II on priestly sexual abuse of youngsters; fathers join you. 
Brendan McGrath | 4/26/2011 - 11:51pm
Anne - I think Origen said something in his "On Prayer" that could apply here; the context was the question of why we should pray at all, if prayer isn't really going to "change" God's mind, etc., but his answer could apply to the question you're asking too.  Basically, he says that God in His/Her omniscience can foresee how we will pray in a given situation, just as He/She can foresee how we will exercise our free will therin, and that He incorporates into the pre-ordered course of events an answer to our prayers -
basically, God wants to have what He does be a response to our prayers.  I suppose you could say by extension that God wants what He does to be a response to intercession too; God wants to involve each of us and all of us as together in His plan, etc.
Anne Chapman | 4/26/2011 - 11:22pm

I know what "intercession" is, and defining it does not answer the question - why not simply pray to God?  Is God so capricious (and even cruel) that he would "intervene" to help someone simply because they have a lot of people praying for him or her (whether asking "intercession" through the living or the dead), and not help someone who is alone, lonely, and has no-one to 'pray for" them?

I don't think God is like that. 
Anonymous | 4/26/2011 - 11:01pm
INTERCESSION. Entreaty in favor of another person; hence mediation. In biblical language, "there is only one mediator between God and mankind, himself a man, Christ Jesus, who sacrificed himself as a ransom for them all" (I Timothy 2:5-6). The Blessed Virgin, Mediatrix of all graces, the angels, saints in heaven, souls in purgatory, and the faithful on earth intercede for mankind by their merits and prayers. Catholic Modern Dictionary

We are all in it together, right Padre?
Anne Chapman | 4/26/2011 - 10:59pm
Fr. Martin,

Why ask anyone, living or dead, to pray for us?  Why not simply pray to God?  I have never understood intercessory prayer instead of praying to God alone.
david power | 4/26/2011 - 8:00pm

The communion of Saints is very biblical and humanistic.
Biblical because there are over 1000 thousand allusions in Holy Scripture to the idea of intercession.To be Catholic is to be in a communion.
On the human level certain people strike us more than others and the Church allows for this human trait as a means to God.There is a great book called "The cult of Saints " by Peter Brown which describes the tradition and it's roots.
His book on St Augustine is one of the finest historical books ever written imo.
The road to superstition is great though ,recently a priest friend admitted that most people who love Padre Pio have little or no interest in Christ and he thought it was better than nothing.A point of view.
I think it is better to read your horoscope or pray to Santa Muerte  or Zeus.
I myself only feel close to God praying to Don Luigi Giussani ,St Josemaria and Albert Hurtado. Lately I have felt a greater  devotion to Pope Roncalli and I am sure I could write essays on why they bring me closer to Jesus if only in thought.Like many Catholics the Virgin Mary remains for me the most intimate guide to Jesus and the most beautiful path there is .

Cada uno por su santo.
Ogni uno peril suo santo.  
Cody Serra | 4/26/2011 - 7:11pm
The article is pretty fair to John Paul II and to liberals and conservatives alike. I still have some problems with the quick process of sainthod, but I can't avoid to recognize his worldwide pilgrimage of love and mutual understandind that conquered many hearts. But he was human like all of us. His mistakes cause pain. I reserve the right to disagree with many of his administrative actions during his Papacy.
But we can't or couldn't know his intentions.  Let's leave the judging to God. Easter forgiveness proves to be difficult.

By now, liberals, conservatives and progressives and whichever other label that may exist out there, which include all of us Catholics and Christians and others, should try to respect better those with whom we don't totally agree with. There are many paths that lead to God. Our journeys are different, our worldviews and Church views may differ, but I'm sure we all love God and the Church.  I would like many things to change now, but I learned in my golden years, that changes happen in God's time.
Besides, let's not mixed the religious labels with the political ones: all of them are divisive when used to criticize others.

Fr. Martin: I don't think that saying you are a liberal changes in any way the good and holy service you are giving to the Church, God and to so many of us. Thank you. God bless you abundantly.
RUTH ANN PILNEY | 4/26/2011 - 5:33pm
Fr. Jim, I thank you for this post about Pope John Paul II.  Every bit of it makes sense, and I find it encouraging to think of holiness as you describe it.