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


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Anne Chapman
6 years 8 months ago
No, Brett, I am not a Protestant.  However, I am looking very closely at the Episcopal church, which seems much closer to a model of the early Christian church than does the Roman church. It emphasizes the Jesus and the gospels rather than the teachings of fallible men . It also doesn't interpret scripture literally as do many protestants.  There is also a very refreshing humility.  John Cardinal Newman's essay ''On Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine'' explains why this is so critical and the Catholic church ignores this. I do not object to there being an authority structure, but that authority structure is meant to serve the church, not command the church and deny the 99.999% of those who are the church any voice in their own church. This is one way the Anglicans are so much closer to the early church than is the church that modeled itself after the Roman empire - it understands that the clergy and hierarchy are not ''the'' church, but that all the lay people are also, and they do have a voice in the church, just as was the case in the early christian church.

   There are ''protestant'' Anglicans/Episcopalians who apparently are closer to Protestant evangelicals in some ways than to the Catholic worldview but I have only met a few-they are charismatics. Anglicanism is a liturgical church and shares a sacramental worldview with Roman Catholics, unlike most protestant churches from what I know of them (which isn't much, I'll admit).

 I don't recall saying there should not be individuals recognized as ''saints''. John Paul II made changes in the process and more should be considered. He reduced the number of needed ''miracles'',  a good move, and got rid of the office of Devil's Advocate, not a good move. People can be held up as models, as inspiration, as examples of how to try to live with as much holiness and grace as sinful human beings can live, without insisting on ''miracles'' for them or saying that they will intervene with God on your behalf when each of us can go directly to God. 

 I have no idea what you are talking about in this:''...and it seems that some would like to ignore the terrible mess of reality of that world and its imperfect men (and also the holy ones) for an abstract, coldy sanitized form of grace.'' If you have time, you could try again to explain what you mean by the ''emphasis on grace to the exclusion of nature'' because the meaning of this sentence is still not clear to me, and also clarify what you mean by that last italicized sentence.

 I will never be a ''Protestant''  like Baptists, Calvinists, Methodists, Lutherans etc.  I am way too Catholic to be able to change that much!
Anne Chapman
6 years 8 months ago
Thank you for the information, Maria.  When I have time later, I will take a look. 
6 years 8 months ago
@ Anne: At you leisure-CHRISTIFIDELES LAICI Pope John Paul II

It is ever more urgent that today all Christians take up again the way of gospel renewal, welcoming in a spirit of generosity the invitation expressed by the apostle Peter "to be holy in all conduct" (1 Pt 1:15). The 1985 Extraordinary Synod, twenty years after the Council, opportunely insisted on this urgency: "Since the Church in Christ is a mystery, she ought to be considered the sign and instrument of holiness... Men and women saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult circumstances in the Church's history. Today we have the greatest need of saints whom we must assiduously beg God to raise up". See

6 years 8 months ago
Hi Anne,

If you aren't already familiar with Evelyn Underwood, I suggest you look into her works.  She was a highly regarded English mystic, Anglo-Catholic.  Some of her writings are on prayer and the saints.  One thing she says is that prayer is a gift from God which fosters and nurtures solidarity  among people.  She was drawn to Catholicism, but I believe she remained an Anglican all of her life.  Do give her writings a try and see what you think!!

Hi Crystal,

You are such a wonderful, avid reader.  I'm always interested in your thoughful comments.  You, too may be interested in Evelyn Underwood.  Take care.
6 years 8 months ago
@ Anne and Crystal: I remembered both of you in prayer at Mass today. Anne, I had to laugh. When I left the Shrine ( in DC) I happened across the Catholic Standard which is the local Catholic weeky here in DC. What should I come across, but this?

Cardinal Wuerl initiates Cause of Canonization of Mary Virginia Merrick

In an April 25 decree, Cardinal Donald Wuerl as archbishop of Washington announced that he is initiating the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Mary Virginia Merrick, a disabled Washington woman who founded the Christ Child Society and who gained national fame in the 1900s for her outreach to needy children.

I thought you might appreciate this. See link to finish reading @


God Bless

6 years 8 months ago
Anne and Crystal,

The name of the English mystic is Evelyn Underhill.  Sorry, it seems my poor brain is frazzled!  Hope you check her out.


Thanks for the info on Mary Virginia Merrick.  I'm interested in learning more about her.  God bless you.
6 years 8 months ago
Father Jim,  

Many of us in the movement called Voice of the Faithful have difficulty with John Paul II's canonization not only because of his lapses of judgment in the sex abuse cases, but also because of his centralizaion of the power structure in Rome, rather than allowing the local churches more autonomy.

Not only have the local Catholic conferences been emasculated under his watch, but also the principle of subsidiarity has not been adhered to despite its acceptance during and after the Second Vatican Council.

Despite these serious philosophic differences, I thank you for pointing out many of his personal characteristics which obviously were holy.

But due to his and his successor's rulings, this Roman imperialism seems to be gathering steam contolling many more parts of the local church than was envisaged after Vatican II. The American sisters investigations are one example and the new Mass translation another.  Some Catholics consider their church to end at the parish level.  Now with Rome telling us how to pray, our daily pray is controlled by this central authority. 

Anne Chapman
6 years 8 months ago
Janice, Thank you for your recommendation. I learned of Evelyn Underhill a couple of years ago, and have recently bought a couple of books - unread so far!  However, your post prompted me to look in the bookcase for them.

Maria,  thank you for pointing out the story about Mary Merrick.  A good friend was very active in the Christ Child Society, and although I never joined, I did make contributions for a number of years. I hope to learn more about her.

Ed, you have raised concerns shared by many, but not yet discussed. I share those concerns.  I oppose the canonization because although John Paul II was a very charismatic individual, certainly raised the visibility of the Catholic church in the world, and did a number of very positive things, especially in terms of relations with the Jews, and ecumenical outreach in general, But the nature of the harm he did was so morally grave, it outweighs the good he also did - failing to protect the young from sexual predators, thus creating thousands of more victims than there might have been. And that tragedy is partly due to the culture he created that you have outlined - centralizing all authority in Rome, especially to the papacy, and appointing bishops who would dutifully put loyalty to the pope and institution ahead of their moral responsibility to protect the young.
Vince Killoran
6 years 8 months ago
How do we know that JPII knew about predator priests?  Because he told us he knew about them! He just didn't do very much about it.

As for Maciel, nine ex-Legion members filed charges against the group in the Vatican Court of Canon Law in 1998. The only way one could argue that JPII didn't know would be to acknowledge that the pope didn't read the papers, didn't have any knowledge of his own Vatican, and his aides around him conspired to keep the reports streaming in about Maciel from him for years. C'mon-is that how you wish to portray JPII, i.e., as a dottering fool?


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