A Liberal Liking of Blessed John Paul II
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