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The Beatification of John Paul II: Honoring a Life, While Still Reserving Judgment About the Wisdom of Particular Decisions – Part 1

Last month, the Vatican formally announced what had long been anticipated since the death of the late Pope John Paul II in 2005 – that he is now, definitively on the track to sainthood. He will be beatified (declared “blessed”) on May 1st, which is the last step in the process towards canonization. To allow the beatification, Pope Benedict XVI has officially confirmed that the case of a French nun with Parkinson’s (the same ailment which afflicted the late pontiff) who prayed to the late pope in the midst of her illness – and was subsequently healed without medical explanation – is indeed genuine. One more miracle on behalf of his intercession is required for his canonization.

Pope John Paul II had the second longest pontificate on record. He served and led the Church for nearly thirty years and was seen as one of the most beloved and influential Bishops of Rome in recent memory. His election in itself was an anomaly, being the first non-Italian to serve as successor to St. Peter in nearly four-hundred years. His papacy was noted for his rise from Soviet Poland, and the influential – and truly pivotal role – he had in helping to bring about the collapse of Communism throughout Eastern Europe, as well as strengthening relations with other Christian churches as well as other religions. He was also greatly celebrated for his intense outreach to the youth of the world as well as taking commendable and poignant stances on behalf of initiatives which promoted justice and peace in all sectors of society. His ardent and personal devotion to the Blessed Virgin is of course, one of the most meaningful and lasting hallmarks of his pontificate.

As a person of the millennial generation, for most of my life, Pope John Paul had been the only pope I had ever been familiar with. His eloquence, charisma, and unwavering devotion to promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ were always what cemented a special reverence and affinity for the Polish Pope in my own heart. The almost legendary exhortation of his, “Be not afraid!” has served as encouragement in times of darkness, and the bedrock of inspiration to an unseen future – assuring me that in all circumstances of life, no matter how difficult, Christ is present and remains steadfastly with us.

The personal holiness of Karol Wojtyła is a thing that the entire globe can attest to. In all endeavors, it is obvious that Pope John Paul tried earnestly to perform and carry out all of his duties as the Pastor of the universal Church in accordance with the will of God. Yet, the particular manner in which he exercised his apostolic ministry has long been subject to debate, and even controversy – both within and outside the confines of the Catholic church.

John Paul II assumed the papacy in the backdrop of the Catholic church continuing to redefine itself in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council – which had concluded nearly fifteen years before. This landmark, global meeting of prelates and theologians had charted a new and exciting course in the way of living out the Catholic faith in dialogue with contemporary society – as well as in conjunction with other religious traditions. Stating:

 “Today the human race is involved in a new stage of history. Profound and rapid changes are spreading by degrees around the whole world. Triggered by the intelligence and creative energies of man, these changes recoil upon him, and upon his decisions and desires, both intellectual and collective, and upon his manner of thinking and acting with respect to things and to people. Hence we can already speak of a true cultural and social transformation, one which has repercussions on man’s religious life as well.” (Gaudium et Spes – Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 1965 #4)

Thus, the Council sketched a positive and objective approach to engaging the world and modern-day society, rather than setting itself up in opposition to it – as had been practiced in previous centuries.

This attitude would eventually lead to greater reforms within the church itself, including; greater lay involvement in parish activities, the translation of rites and liturgies into the languages of the people instead of Latin, having the priest face the people during the celebration of the Eucharist as compared to his back being turned towards them – essentially making him into an actor upon a stage, as well as a newly intensified – and reconfigured – dialogue with other religions (affirming their inherent goodness rather than blindly condemning them because they did not affirm the absolute dominion Jesus Christ). All of these initiatives would lead to a new era of hope, diversity, and promise within the Catholic church.

Yet, soon after his ascent to the Chair of Peter, Pope John Paul began to take very disconcerting actions in the wake of so much innovation and progressive change.

The pope would oversee the termination of Fr. Hans Küng’s – one of the most prolific and influential theologians to have enlightened Catholicism within the past generation – license to teach as a Catholic theologian because of questions he presented about the very recent doctrine of papal infallibility, which was coined nearly a century before at the First Vatican Council. To this day, neither the Orthodox or Protestant Christians subscribe to the notion that the Bishop of Rome can – unilaterally, on his own initiative – define what is essential, and worthy of belief, to Christianity and what is not.

After John XXIII – the underlying author of Vatican II – had left to the church an example of episcopal cooperation, rather than one of monarchical dominance by prelates, John Paul II turned the process of selecting and appointing bishops into an ideological litmus test. From this point on, pastoral bishops who approached matters objectively and freely in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council would no longer be the norm, and would instead begin to be counteracted with bishops who saw things only in a subjective black or white manner. Ultimately, their main pursuit was to remain loyal to John Paul at all costs – often forsaking the overall good and intentions of their respective spiritual flocks who had been placed in their charge. This would only serve to create and enforce a greater sense of centralization and autonomy around the See of Rome – and the authoritarian edifice it supported – rather than giving rise to a collective sense of collaboration and cooperation – by all and not simply prelates and clerics – throughout the universal church.

Despite the fact that in 1976, the Pontifical Biblical Commission concluded that there were no explicit or identifiable Scriptural grounds for continuing to prevent the ordination of women to the priesthood and other levels of the clerical state, Pope John Paul would later come to overturn this finding and in 1995 flatly declared that the Catholic church had not, did not, and never would possess the “authority” to ordain women. Yet, in the modern – most strict – sense of the word, Jesus never really “ordained” anyone, not even the twelve apostles. No elaborate rites, or even oral rituals and ceremonies, that have their equivalent in today’s ordination liturgies could be said to have been carried out by the Jesus of Nazareth who lived in first century Palestine. Although it may be bitter medicine for some to accept, modern biblical scholarship as well as historical analysis can clearly attest to this fact. If anything, Jesus encouraged all those who followed Him to spread the Good News He had to offer to all of humanity. Scripture is clear that numerous women were visibly dispersed among His followers, and following His Resurrection they played an instrumental role – along with men – in enriching and making the early Church meaningful and attractive. In fact, women are even portrayed as being considered “apostles” (in the Greek, “one who is sent”) in their own right. In his letter to the Romans, Paul refers to a woman called “Junia” who is mentioned as being “prominent among the apostles” (Romans 16:7). To obscure this fact, in subsequent centuries, the name “Junia” would be changed to “Junias” (the male version of the name) to hide the fact that a woman was portrayed as an apostle in the New Testament. In even starker examples, women are presented as “deaconesses” – a particular case, of a woman named “Phoebe” (Romans 16:1), is given in, once again, Paul’s epistle to the Romans. This role of ministerial “service” by women would continue well until the thirteenth century within the Church. It is important to note that history does show that this was not merely a functionary role. As the practice of clerical ordination developed and was further enhanced, history shows that equivalent ceremonies were conducted to initiate women into the diaconate – as members of the clergy – in the same manner that men were. Yet, as chauvinism, authoritarianism, and patriarchy began to define the Church of the Middle Ages the female diaconate fell into decline, and was ultimately abolished.

Leaving all of these issues aside, there is of course what may be the most pressing and troubling matter to contemplate during the span of John Paul II’s pontificate – the sexual abuse crisis which has plagued the Catholic church for decades, if not longer. One has no way of knowing how many cases have never been brought to public scrutiny or simply weren’t documented out of fear or the ignorance that was prevalent in their respective historical climates.

In fairness, it must be noted that when these various cases were beginning to gain the attention of the public, particularly the news media, the pope was beginning a steep and dramatic physical decline due to the debilitating nature of Parkinson’s disease – which would later be revealed that he was afflicted with. Could this have clouded his judgment regarding this intensely personal and heinous subject? Could he have even comprehended it? This very well may have been the case, but one can never have the certainty of knowing for sure. Yet, even in light of this logic, this does not excuse either the fault of those who had knowledge of these crimes in the various Vatican congregations from bringing them to the attention of the pontiff sooner, or of the pope himself – if he did in fact comprehend the gravity of these offenses, which were perpetrated against defenseless children – but did not act swiftly enough.  

With all of these subjects – each with their own respective implications – being taken into consideration we are left pondering a question. What did Pope John Paul II really stand for? On the one hand, he stood for the inherent dignity of all human beings – regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or social standing – and championed their rights at home and abroad, especially in his own collaboration to bring about the collapse of the Iron Curtain throughout eastern Europe. While on the other hand, the pope, continuously, refused to allow for open discussion to take place concerning matters which involved the intricacies of human sexuality as well as the understanding of perceived gender roles – along with the theological ramifications which accompanied them – within Catholicism. How can this apparent dichotomy exist? To many, it has seemed that while he fought against authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that deprived human beings of their rights and inherent dignities throughout the world, he did the exact opposite within the church of Rome – concretely regressing on many advances which had been courageously initiated at the Second Vatican Council.

How can such a man – of seemingly, countless contradictions – be honored, acclaimed, and venerated by infinite numbers of souls across the globe as one who was particularly holy or close to God if he had so many blatant flaws when it came to relating to various segments of humanity, especially those under his purview within the Catholic church? Is this really the record of a “saint?”

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4 Responses

  1. Karol Józef Wojtyła will be remembered in history as an historic and influential figure for all the reasons you mention.

    But for all the reasons you also mention, the idea of this man being a considered a ‘Saint’ just seems wrong.

    In many ways the case could be far better made to have John XXIII canonized.

    And what is this business about the nun being cured. What will be the position taken by Rome should she relapse?

  2. Phillip,

    In some ways, I have to agree with you. Pope John Paul II becoming a saint so quickly is akin to President Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

    On the other hand, I understand that the criteria to becoming a saint has very little to do with ideological or administrative positions.

  3. This is an excellent article. Thank you for sharing it. I have read many books about Pope John Paul II. He was always my hero and I even saw him (with a million other people) when he came to Philadelphia in 1979. He was a great man but it is sad that he never really dealt with the abuse crisis but as you mentioned in this article at this point he had entered a physical (and probably mental) decline.

    • Mark,

      I don’t think the sex abuse crisis can be fairly laid upon Pope John Paul II’s grave.

      It is doubtful that the Pope knew much about what was happening. Further, even if he had, “Go and sin no more” seems a far better approach for a church official than the “Stone them now” approach that dominates current thinking, especially in the secular circles.

      The sex abuse responses, including the coverups, were a collective response, which, only with the aid of hindsight, now appears to have been misguided. At the time, many people, including the parents of the abused children, wanted to handle the abuse in the manner in which it was handled.

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