John Paul II 'Blessed' for opening world's doors to Christ

Pope John Paul II was declared blessed in Rome today before a sea of people stretching from St Peter's back to the Tiber, under skies lit by a sun emerging from a cold, cloudy morning. The Poles, as expected, dominated the square, but every part of the world was represented at this tribute to the first truly global pope.

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Pope Benedict's homily, which ended on a touching personal note of gratitude for the 23 years he worked alongside his predecessor, dealt head-on with two objections to today's ceremony: the speed of the beatification, and what some claim to be John Paul II's roll-back of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. 

Even at his death, said Benedict XVI, "we perceived the fragrance of his sanctity, and in any number of ways God's People showed their veneration for him." Which is why, said the Pope, "with all due respect for the Church's canonical norms, I wanted his cause of beatification to move forward with reasonable haste." The day has come quickly, he added, "because this is what was pleasing to the Lord".

There was nothing surprising in this defence of the speed of the process, but it was robust; the Pope was saying: the people wanted it done quickly; so did God; so did I.

Where you stand on the question of Pope John Paul II's treatment of the legacy of the Second Vatican Council will depend on what you think the Council was for. If you regarded it as a charter for the reform of the Church's internal structures and forms of governance, John Paul II was more than a disappointment.

But for Benedict XVI and John Paul II, it was primarily about breaking out of the walls built over a century and a half of the Church defending itself from from atheist secularism and totalitarianism. The changes which the Church made  -- and John Paul II made not a few reforms himself -- were precisely about shedding the baggage of this long legacy of cultural retreat, equipping the Church to go out to the world with renewed vigour and confidence.

And in this, Pope John Paul was undoubtedly a hero, and deserves all the superlatives which have been lavished on him.

Quoting his predecessor's Testament, Benedict XVI showed that John Paul II's mission was to serve the "cause" of drawing from the treasures of the Council.

"And what is this 'cause'?" asked Pope Benedict. "It is the same one that John Paul II presented during his first solemn Mass in St Peter's Square in the unforgettable words: 'Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!' What the newly elected Pope asked of everyone, he was himself the first to do: society, culture and economic systems he opened up to Christ, turning back with the strength of a titan -- a strength which came to him from God -- a tide which appeared irreversible."

Benedict XVI went on: "He helped believers throughout the world not to be afraid to be called Christian, to belong to the Church, to speak of the Gospel. In a word, he helped us not to fear the truth, because truth is the guarantee of liberty."

Blessed John Paul II, he added a little later, "reclaimed for Christianity that impulse of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of progress."

And in the fruit of that heroic challenge to the world -- in addition, obviously, to his profound holiness, rootedness in prayer, etc. -- lies the reason for launching him so quickly on the path to canonisation.

But the intensity of that focus left many issues for Benedict XVI to deal with, not least in the Church's capacity for dealing with the the clerical sex abuse crisis.

As Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster told the Catholic Herald, beatification "is not a prize for good management. It’s an acclamation that this person was close to God and in his life and work showed us some of the attributes of God, God’s creativeness and his abundant mercy."

This morning's Mass was a great testament to that. John Paul II touched millions, and this morning they came to Rome in their hundreds of thousands to give thanks for a Pope who helped to bring our world closer to Christ.

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