Why is John Paul 'Blessed'?

An excellent article, maybe the best short treament I've read yet, on the holiness of John Paul II, soon to be beatified.  It's by John Thavis, Catholic New Service's veteran Vatican correspondent, and stresses his personal holiness (that is, his personal spiritual life and relationship to God) rather than his "achievements."   

For Pope John Paul II, spiritual journey marked path to beatification


By John Thavis Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As church officials keep emphasizing, Pope John Paul II is being beatified not for his performance as pope, but for how he lived the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. When the Vatican's sainthood experts interviewed witnesses about the Polish pontiff, the focus of their investigation was on holiness, not achievement.

What emerged was a spiritual portrait of Pope John Paul, one that reflected lifelong practices of prayer and devotion, a strong sense of his priestly vocation and a reliance on faith to guide his most important decisions. More than leadership or managerial skills, these spiritual qualities were the key to his accomplishments--both before and after his election as pope in 1978.

From an early age, Karol Wojtyla faced hardships that tested his trust in God. His mother died when he was 9, and three years later he lost his only brother to scarlet fever. His father died when he was 20, and friends said Wojtyla knelt for 12 hours in prayer and sorrow at his bedside.

His calling to the priesthood was not something that happened overnight. It took shape during the dramatic years of World War II, after a wide variety of other experiences: Among other things, he had acted with a theater group, split stone at a quarry, written poetry and supported a network that smuggled Jews to safety.

Wojtyla's friends of that era always remembered his contemplative side and his habit of intense prayer. A daily Mass-goer, he cultivated a special devotion to Mary. In 1938, he began working toward a philosophy degree at the University of Krakow. A year later, the Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland left the country in ruins.

During the German occupation, Wojtyla began attending weekly meetings called the "living rosary" led by Jan Tyranowski, a Catholic layman who soon became his spiritual mentor. Tyranowski introduced him to the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross, who would greatly influence the future pope. Wojtyla called Tyranowski an "apostle" and later wrote of him: "He showed us God much more immediately than any sermons or books; he proved to us that God could not only be studied, but also lived."

At a spiritual crossroads in 1942, Wojtyla entered Krakow's clandestine theological seminary. In the pope's 1996 book, "Gift and Mystery," he remembered his joy at being called to the priesthood, but his sadness at being cut off from acquaintances and other interests. He said he always felt a debt to friends who suffered "on the great altar of history" during World War II, while he pursued his underground seminary studies.  As a seminarian, he continued to be attracted to monastic contemplation. Twice during these years he petitioned to join the Discalced Carmelites but was said to have been turned away with the advice: "You are destined for greater things."

He was ordained four years later, as Poland's new communist regime was enacting restrictions on the Catholic Church. After two years of study in Rome, he returned to Poland in 1948 and worked as a young pastor. From the beginning, he focused much of his attention on young people, especially university students -- the beginning of a lifelong pastoral interest. Students would join him on hiking and camping trips, which always included prayer, outdoor Masses and discussions about the faith.

Father Wojtyla earned a doctorate in moral theology and began teaching at Lublin University, at the same time publishing articles and books on ethics and other subjects. In 1958, at age 38, he was named an auxiliary bishop of Poland, becoming the youngest bishop in Poland's history. He became archbishop of Krakow in 1964, and played a key role in the Second Vatican Council, helping to draft texts on religious liberty and the church in the modern world.

After Pope John Paul I was elected in the first conclave of 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla said in a sermon in Poland that the papacy, "although it is a great office, is also a very great cross." He said of the new pope: "He took up the cross of contemporary man ... of all the tensions and dangers which arise from various injustices: the violation of human rights, the enslavement of nations, new forms of colonial exploitation ... wrongs which can be righted only in the spirit of Christ's cross." A few weeks later, Pope John Paul I was dead, and the "cross" of the papacy fell to Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.

Early in his pontificate, on May 13, 1981 -- the feast of Our Lady of Fatima -- the Polish pope experienced a brush with death that intensified his already strong devotion to Mary. Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk who had previously threatened the pope, shot and seriously wounded the pontiff in St. Peter's Square. The pope's life hung in the balance, and his recovery was slow. He credited Mary with saving him, and he later traveled to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, where he placed a bullet fragment removed from his body in the crown of a statue of Mary.

Years later, the pope published the "third secret" of Fatima, which described a period of suffering for the church and the shooting of a bishop in white -- a figure the pope believed was linked to the attempt on his life.

Pope John Paul's private prayer life was intense, and visitors who attended his morning Mass described him as immersed in an almost mystical form of meditation. He prayed the liturgy of the hours, he withdrew for hours of silent contemplation and eucharistic adoration, and he said the rosary often -- eventually adding five new luminous mysteries to this traditional form of prayer.

The pope also took penitential practices seriously. In a book published after his death, the postulator or his sainthood cause, Msgr. Slawomir Oder, said Pope John Paul spent entire nights lying with his arms outstretched on the bare floor, fasted before ordaining priests or bishops and flagellated himself with a belt.

Throughout his life, Pope John Paul was a devotee of the Divine Mercy movement, which was founded in the early 1900s by a Polish nun from Krakow, Sister Faustina Kowalska. Her special devotion to the divine mercy of God was a theme the pope himself took up in his 1980 encyclical "Dives in Misericordia" ("Rich in Mercy").  The pope beatified Sister Faustina in 1993 and canonized her in 2000, proclaiming the second Sunday of Easter as Mercy Sunday throughout the world. Pope John Paul's death in 2005 came on the eve of Mercy Sunday, and his beatification May 1 will be celebrated on Mercy Sunday.

Pope John Paul canonized 482 people, more than all his predecessors combined. Although the Vatican was sometimes humorously referred to as a "saint factory" under Pope John Paul, the pope was making a very serious effort to underline what he called the "universal call to holiness" -- the idea that all Christians, in all walks of life, are called to sanctity. "There can never be enough saints," he once remarked.

He was convinced that God sometimes speaks to the world through simple and uneducated people. St. Faustina was one, and he also canonized St. Padre Pio, the Italian mystic, and St. Juan Diego, the Mexican peasant who had visions of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The world knows Pope John Paul largely because of his travels to 129 countries. For him, they were spiritual journeys. As he told his top advisers in 1980: "These are trips of faith and of prayer, and they always have at their heart the meditation and proclamation of the word of God, the celebration of the Eucharist and the invocation of Mary."

Pope John Paul never forgot that he was, above all, a priest. In his later years, he said repeatedly that what kept him going was not the power of the papacy but the spiritual strength that flowed from his priestly vocation. He told some 300,000 young people in 1997: "With the passing of time, the most important and beautiful thing for me is that I have been a priest for more than 50 years, because every day I can celebrate Holy Mass!"

In his final years, the suffering brought on by Parkinson's disease, arthritis and other afflictions became part of the pope's spiritual pilgrimage, demonstrating in an unusually public way his willingness to embrace the cross. With his beatification, the church is proposing not a model pope but a model Christian, one who witnessed inner holiness in the real world, and who, through words and example, challenged people to believe, to hope and to love.  --CNS

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7 years 9 months ago
PS - I would say that a "show" of Christian solidarity and grand events that were the halmark of JPII pontificate are absolutely necessary in a time plagued by aggressive secularism and nihilism (not to mention increasingly violent Islamic movements).

Events like World Youth Day are exactly what we need right now (along with trips such as Benedict's to the UK and US recently).  I disagree with the idea that this is pure show - rather, it is evangelization a on grand and beautiful scale!
Anne Chapman
7 years 9 months ago

Thank you for the link to the interviews.  I was still a young woman when John Paul II was elected pope.  Like most, I was totally taken in by his youth and his charisma, and thought that he would be a worthy successor to John XXIII.  How naive, and how very wrong I was. He was, however, a masterful politician.  John Paul II's version of orthodoxy and his appointments of bishops damaged the church  - perhaps permanently.

Those who are pushing his sainthood so urgently may have an agenda that has nothing to do with holiness, and everything to do with the human concerns of the Vatican. The Vatican may be starting to taste the bitter fruit of its  activities since 1978 - millions of Catholics in Europe, the US, and Canada leaving the church since John Paul II's election. Their money has left also. Brett calls the ceremonies in Rome ''evangelization'' - it may instead have more to do with improving the bottom line.  With grudging concessions that the ''scandal'' was not an American aberration caused by the American media and culture, Rome has seen defections in Germany and Austria go from a trickle to a flood, and mass attendance in other countries plummet. Vatican authority has evaporated in country after country, all once solidly Catholic. The church now threatens to excommunicate Catholics in countries such as Germany and Austria if they notify the tax authorities to no longer withhold taxes for the support of the church. The church is big business and it needs money to survive.  It may not risk a downgrade by S&P since it issues no government debt but the storm clouds are on the horizon.  Just as the World Youth Days did not prompt significant, lasting loyalty to Rome and all it teaches among the world's then-youth (in the US, the biggest defections in recent years are occurring in that age group, and European Catholicism has been moribund even longer), the ''bump'' in the ''ratings'' caused by the upcoming events in Rome will also be short-lived.  Some who were enthralled by John Paul II's outwardly charming persona remain loyal groupies, and are eager for the upcoming show, but most saw behind the curtain a long time ago.

It is widely reported that Benedict foresees a ''smaller'' but ''purer'' church.  With parishes and schools closing by the hundreds across the U.S., and more and more priests forced to do double or triple duty in those that remain (more than 3500 parishes without a resident priest) and the much hyped numbers of ''John Paul II'' priests not nearly enough to stem the outflowing tide, Rome continues to fiddle while western Catholicism dies. Perhaps Benedict didn't think about the economics of it all - smaller, purer - and poorer.  Those he is driving away are those who finance the church in the less-developed world. Ultimately, it will be the poor who suffer (as usual), rather than bishops and cardinals in their mansions. The church authorities need to read the gospels, and do a course correction before it's too late to revive the western church.  Going back to the 19th or 16th centuries is not the answer. Rome must understand what John XXIII understood - there is only the present, and there is no going back.
Jerry Slevin
7 years 9 months ago
HANS KUNG:IT'S A FARCE. Thus said Hans Kung in a recent interview about the beatification of Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) now. It is premature and unnecessary to do this now, and it may soon turn out to be a blatant abuse of the saint making process. Why now? It seems very evident this is part of the strategic plan developed over 30 years by  Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) and Wojtyla. These men were/are not fools. They have accepted the exodus of tens of millions of Catholics and the expenditure of billions of dollars to protect child rapists. Their strategy at this point seems quite evident. The goal is to return to a smaller, but blindly obedient church, in the style of the pre-Vatican II absolutist papal monarchy. This is not some conspiracy theory-it is the best explantion available to explain the hierarchy's actions. I have described this in detail in my comment to the National Catholic Reporter April 18 column of Tom Fox/John Allen entitled ''Why the rush to sainthood for Pope John Paul II''. My comment, the seventh down, is entitled; Hans Kung:It's a Farce''. Please read the comment and if you have a better explantion of the Vatican's strategy, many sincere believers would welcome it. Pax.
Margie Walsh
7 years 9 months ago
Perhaps he isn't blessed. Perhaps the current Pope is simply trying to recapture some of the enthusiasm that his predecessor aroused in his travels around the world.  But personal charisma does not equate with holiness.  The late pope claims he remembers that ''above all he was a priest,'' but he forgot that part of his job as a pastor was to protect the little ones under his care in the church.  Maybe he was so attached to the idea that being a priest is ''above all'', he put protecting an institution and priest-molesters ''above all''  as well.

The rush to canonization seems to be an attempt to get it done before too many people really think about the man's papacy and on the harm he caused the church.  He presided over the biggest loss of Catholics in the western church since the reformation, getting even worse under the present pope.  Maybe the beatification was rushed as going back to the Roman habit of ''spectacle'' to try to renew enthusiasm for the church. It seems mostly to appeal to those who are fascinated by celebrity and wealth, more like secular monarchy than to the life and teachings of Jesus, the carpenter. This show will follow on the heels of the royal wedding in England, and probably won't have any more real spiritual meaning than the wedding. Those who look for real examples of holiness are more likely to find it in those serving in soup kitchens, and pack food baskets for those without food and jobs, and visit the sick, especially the outcasts of society such as AIDS patients, than they will in the glitz and glamour of imperial Rome and its occupants.
7 years 9 months ago
The first two comments here are pretty much expected; however, they are clearly lacking in Christian charity and common sense...

Why do liberal Catholics like to cite the occasional bomb-throwing of traditionalists on the blogosphere and then ignore or remain silent on similar extremes from their own group?

No reprimands from the staff or fellow liberal posters for the hyperbole/propaganda written above?
7 years 9 months ago
The first three comments are as expected and show the split views of JPII extent in the Church.
With such divsion, the beatification may well be perceived as a rush job to  make heros of those in the highest Church ranks.
7 years 9 months ago
Bonum ex integra causa; malum ex quocumque defectu. 'Perfection requires a total of A grades; imperfection from a  single significant F grade.' JPII had a plethora of 'A' grades across a broad spectrum; but there were some significent 'F's. He receives an F as to his failure to understand the abuse crisis. He brought Cardinal Law, driven from Boston by his priests and people for his history of secret reassignments of pedophile priests, to Rome and installed him as rector of a major basilica with a six-figure income and retained him on the commission that vets candidates for bishop. He receives an :F" for his close support and friendship with Maciel, later found to have abused seminarians and having lived a secret dissolute life. In the same vein, he appointed as Archbishop of Vienna an individual whose entry to the cathedral was blocked by crowds who knew him as unfit. Quickly found to have abused young people, he was quickly removed by JPII.

In his constant centralizing of papal power, he deterred any movement towards collegiality among bishops. At the conclusions of his Synods of Bishops, he presented their work, notthrough conclusions reached by the bishops, but as perceived through the lens of his own vision of the Church. Is this lack of humility to be given an A or an F? And why were the canonical and traditional waiting periods before beatification quickly scrapped? Time periods are always important to see how the legacy of a candidate plays out in the history of the Church.
Carolyn Disco
7 years 9 months ago
While respecting JPII’s personal journey, sorry, I just recoil at the thought of his beatification. The gist of Thavis’ article fails to convince.
“Pope John Paul spent entire nights lying with his arms outstretched on the bare floor…flagellated himself with a belt.”  I cannot relate at all.
I have the sense one’s spirituality overflows into life, bearing fruit.
JPII’s decisions, whether in his disastrous choice of bishops, his abandoning children to the predations of priests, his protection of Law, Maciel etc., his personal leadership style (insulting in many cases – particularly in his treatment of Jadot, Romero), his centralization of power, and the mess in which he left the Church – what kind of spirituality do these embody?
He was impressive in many political achievements, but that does not negate the very harmful impact his rule brought to the Church. Talk to me instead of John XXIII.
See two interviews about JPII; one by the esteemed late Peter Hebblethwaite of NCR, who stipulated it should not be aired until after the pope’s death, and William Johnston, a theology prof in Australia, at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/relrpt/stories/s1333976.htm

Q: You say that there’s actually a disconnect between the Pope’s collective achievement and what you call a blind spot that this Pope had at a personal level, and you talk about acts of personal cruelty.

WJ: Well I call it a blind spot; I think that’s a kind way, it may have been deliberate. The example I was told from an eye witness when the American bishops had one of their joint visits to the Pope in the early ‘90s, he greeted each of them individually as they stood in a circle. (See more…)
david power
7 years 9 months ago

I consider you the best commentator on America and often learn a lot from your points of view which I usually share and if not find very informed and intelligent.
Here I totally disagree with you and have to say that the first two comments are truly on the money. It is sad when the lust for a show is all that matters.I live in Rome and it is disgusting to witness how it is handled,Jesus Christ has nothing to do with this.

This pope treated pedophilia as a bit of downtime for priests and although I dont agree that Ratzinger has shown the same disdain for victims he should have stopped this charade.He knows full well the idolatry that is involved in all of this and that it is what Vittorio Messorio called Wojtyla's bulimia for superficial encounters.
I deeply admire this Pope and hope that all will go well and that he will lead the Church away from the path of demogoguery .
Brett as much as I respect you ,you must realize that the hierarchy is not right at al times and your normally or at least often brilliant comments suffer from suggesting so.

Long Live Jesus Christ
Winifred Holloway
7 years 9 months ago
I remember being charmed and hopeful when John Paul was chosen as Pope.  Young for a pope and from Poland, and not Italy, how refreshing that seemed.  Over the years, I became concerned about, ironically, the number of people being declared saints.  It seemed to me unseemly.  Diluting the brand.  If you were a cleric or religious and known in any way for holiness, you were declared a saint.  I lost all faith in the canonization process when a married couple were elevated to sainthood.  Their distinguishing virtue appeared to be that they lived (oh, so delicately put) as brother and sister for the last 20 or so years of their lives.  Really?  It is only recently that I learned that Maciel's mother and uncle were canonized.  Yikes!  And please don't tell me that they should not be judged by his actions.  Of course, they should not.  But how did they get to be declared saints?  The late pope lost me on that one.  As time went on, and I began to see that the promise of Vatican 2 was suppressed by the late pope, I was disillusioned.  I see his charm, his charisma, and indeed his personal holiness.  It's not enough.  And we open our church to mockery when we let popularity, which is often short-lived, guide us to what is suitable to be venerated.
david power
7 years 9 months ago

I am not sure that his mother was declared a saint.His uncle was and  Jason Berry suggests that he may have been involved in his murder.In "Christ is my life" Maciel explained about how he learned all of the Christian virtues from his mother and itwas from such  a beginning that he acquired a facility with holiness.In the same book he forgave those who accused him of rape and did so as a christian.I thought that was big of him considering St Ignatius hauled up in court anybody who told lies about him.My thoughts at the time were "Saints are just that bit holier today".Mama Rosa is not a saint yet but could be subito....  
Winifred Holloway
7 years 9 months ago
@David Power    Thank you , David for clarifying the status of Maciel's mother in re to canonization.  I checked again and saw that Maciel had advocated her for sainthood, but I guess that's as far as it went.  I apologize in advance for the trite statement, but truly if this saga were a screenplay, it would be declared too ridiculous to be plausible.  In any case, I am uneasy that the church seems to be taking the making of saints so lightly.  With all due respect, I think the cause of JP II could wait another century or so.
7 years 9 months ago
" If he is not a Saint, then we are all in trouble".
-Fr. Fessio SJ
Molly Roach
7 years 9 months ago
We are in huge trouble.
7 years 9 months ago
Hey David, 

Thanks for the nice words; I enjoy your commentary, as well - and esp. as it is from the European perspective.

As for the post, I am not opposed to questioning the timing of the process, etc., so long as it is done with reason and charity.  The piece by John Allen comes to mind.

When I see usual tropes about the bishops - e.g., "fancy robes" or "men in dresses" or uncharitable comments about this process being nothing but a "farce," then I have to question the motive of the comment and even the possibility of dialogue between the Catholic left and right.  There has to be a happy medium between paranoia of authority and the enablers of authoritarianism.

Long Live Christ the King!
Thomas Piatak
7 years 9 months ago
Thanks for posting this very good piece.
Jim McCrea
7 years 9 months ago
No, Maria - only Joseph Fessio (and I suppose your beloved John Hardon) is in huge trouble.  When you make icons out of humans you end up with worthless art way too often.
7 years 9 months ago
Jim, the Saints are not worthless icons. They are bright lights that guide us in the dark. Do yourself a favor and re-introduce yourself to the lives of the Saints. You will receive new eyes with which to see the world. Oh, and Jim, Fr. Hardon will have his day. No question.
7 years 9 months ago
I think George Weigel got it right: " the progressivist project has ended".

Jim McCrea
7 years 9 months ago
Proofing is not my hightest skill.
That s/b:  "And am I far from surprised that "Like my new cape?" Burke would quote your man Hardon.  Birds of a feather and all of that."
7 years 9 months ago
 @ Jim: Yes, on can certainly see the influence of Hardon ion Burke's thinking. Already read Winters. Jim, have I told you that I have really gotten to appreciate your Irish humor?
7 years 9 months ago
It seems that we could both use typing lessons.


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