Beatification of Pope John Paul II – the case forGeorge Weigel
- 22 January 2011
On 1 May, John Paul II will be beatified in Rome, just six years after his death. It’s entirely, right, says his biographer, that he should be so honoured in such a short time, because of the remarkable witness of his entire life
Shortly before noon on 8 April 2005, something happened in Rome that hadn’t happened since 604, when worshippers attending the funeral Mass of Pope Gregory I spontaneously acclaimed him magnus – “great”. In 2005, although cries of Magnus (“Magno” from the Italians present) ricocheted acoustically throughout St Peter’s Square, the dominant chant was “Santo subito” – “A saint, now”.
The people of the Church were rendering their judgement, spontaneously and unambiguously: Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, had lived a life of heroic virtue, which the Church should recognise by immediately declaring him to be among the saints.
Wisely, Pope Benedict XVI did not accede to that request. He did, however, dispense with the normal waiting period for introducing a new cause for beatification and canonisation, so that the process of examining the life of John Paul II could begin in 2005. That process has now reached its formal conclusion with the certification of a miraculous cure through the intercession of the late Pontiff, and the announcement that his beatification will be celebrated on Divine Mercy Sunday, 1 May. Thus the formal judgement of the Church’s leadership has now caught up with the spontaneous judgement of the people of God, six years ago.
The postulation for John Paul’s beatification and canonisation, housed in the Vicariate of Rome, next door to the Basilica of St John Lateran, received formal submissions from more than 120 witnesses, including heads of state and political leaders as well as clergy and Religious. Their written or transcribed testimony fills two thick volumes of the four-volume Positio, the official record of the investigation of John Paul’s life, submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and Pope Benedict. (One official familiar with the process told me that the most interesting testimonies were from lay people. I asked him if he found that surprising, and he simply smiled.)
The first volume of the Positio is a mini-biography of Karol Wojtyla. The fourth volume deals with “special questions” and addresses issues that had been raised since the beatification investigation began in 2005. Among the latter was the charge, printed in an obscure Italian tabloid and possibly floated by former Stasi personnel looking to muddy the waters, that young Wojtyla had been involved in assassinating two Gestapo agents during the Second World War.
Then there were the unsolicited testimonies. Letters from all over the world, some simply addressed “Pope John Paul II – Heaven”, somehow found their way to the Postulation office. The Postulator, Mgr Slawomir Oder, a Polish canonist originally from the Diocese of Torun, told me that many of these letters were from Protestant and Orthodox Christians, non-Christians, even non-believers, whose lives had nonetheless been touched by the life and witness of Karol Wojtyla.
Thousands of favours granted through what the writers believed were the intercessions of John Paul II were also reported; many involved grave illness, but, appropriately enough for the pro-life Pope who had lifted up the vocation of marriage as a noble calling, others involved couples who had conceived a child after experiencing years of difficulties. (One likes to think that the former philosopher professor at the Catholic University of Lublin got a celestial chuckle out of the many requests for his help in passing difficult exams.)
And there were the critics: the priestly Society of St Pius X, the Lefebvrist group, sent, of its own accord, a thick dossier charging John Paul with jettisoning the idea of personal sin for “social sin”, preaching a worldly rather than eschatological hope, and promoting inter-religious dialogue.
As for the case of Fr Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, his deception of the Pope, which cannot be denied, was presumably addressed under the rubric of “special questions”, and any question of the late Pope’s alleged complicity in a cover-up of Maciel’s crimes was satisfactorily resolved – meaning rebutted. It might be suggested, however, that a public report from the Holy See on this facet of the beatification investigation would help clear the air prior to the 1 May beatification ceremony.
The otherwise inexplicable cure of a French nun suffering from Parkinson’s disease was the confirming miracle, accepted by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and Pope Benedict, that cleared the way for the decree of beatification. But in a larger sense of “miracle”, the case for the beatification – and, ultimately, the canonisation – of John Paul II rests on the witness of his entire life. And the greatest “miracle” that Karol Wojtyla performed was to restore a sense of Christian possibility in a world that had largely consigned Christian conviction to the margins of history.
In 1978, no one expected that the defining figure of the last quarter of the twentieth century would be a Polish priest and bishop. Christianity was finished as a world-shaping force, according to the opinion-leaders of the time; it might endure as a vehicle of personal piety, but Christian conviction would play no role in shaping the twenty-first-century world. Yet within six months of his election, John Paul II had demonstrated the dramatic capacity of Christian conviction to create a revolution of conscience that, in turn, created a new and powerful form of politics – the politics that eventually led to the revolutions of 1989 and the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe.
Then there was his evangelism. John Paul II made Catholicism compelling and interesting in a world that imagined that humanity had “outgrown” its need for God, Christ and the Church. In virtually every part of the world, the late Pope’s unapologetic preaching of Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life drew a positive response, and millions of lives were changed as a result. This was not supposed to happen, in late modernity. But it did, through the “miraculous” preaching of a gospel of compassion, but a gospel without compromise, that engaged the world while challenging it to live its aspiration to freedom more nobly.
And then there was John Paul’s social doctrine, which, again against all expectations, put the Catholic Church at the centre of the world’s conversation about the politics, economics and public culture of the post-Communist future. In 1978, did anyone really expect that papal social encyclicals would be debated in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, or that a pope would rivet the world’s attention in two dramatic defences of the universality of human rights before the General Assembly of the United Nations? No one expected that, including the cardinals who elected Karol Wojtyła as Pope. But it happened.
As a son of the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II created a model of evangelical Catholicism that made the Christian proposal plausible, compelling and attractive. He did that, not by diluting the demands of the Gospel, but by preaching the fullness of Christian truth and then embodying that teaching in his own life, suffering and death.
His evangelical Catholicism demonstrated both the beauty of Christianity and its importance for the human future. That demonstration was his greatest “miracle”; it was his greatest gift to the Church and the world; and it is the reason why the Church was right to recognise his heroic virtues in declaring him to be among the blessed.