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Everything listed under: Pope John Paul II

  • Ten years after John Paul II's death, focus in Poland shifts to Francis

    I’ve been in Warsaw for the last few days, doing interviews for the launch of the Polish edition of The Vatican Diaries. As expected, there were many questions about Pope John Paul II (and about Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who is seen as the protector of the late pope’s legacy.)

    The most common question was how John Paul II could be a saint, considering the sex abuse scandals that came to light only late in his pontificate. One of the chapters of my book details the painfully slow Vatican response to accusations against Legion of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who was given strong support by Pope John Paul. Only in late 2004 did the Vatican reopen an investigation that eventually confirmed Maciel’s sexual abuse of seminarians and a lifetime of lies.

    Clerical sex abuse remains a current topic in Poland, where some 27 priests have been convicted in recent years, in cases that have drawn much publicity and generated much criticism of the hierarchy.

    But my Polish interviewers also inevitably came around to Pope Francis – his agenda, the resistance he faces and his chances for success. It was in Poland that I realized that it was 10 years ago this month that John Paul II's illness took a serious turn for the worse, leading to his death several weeks later. For many younger Poles, he is a figure from the past, someone they never knew. Pope Francis is the name on everyone’s lips.

    In Poland as elsewhere, there’s been open criticism of Pope Francis and some of his more controversial statements by conservative commentators. These are primarily Catholics who felt empowered under Pope Benedict and his Catholic identity focus, and who feel disoriented under Francis and his “who am I to judge” approach. I’m convinced they are a minority, but they are a minority with a voice.

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  • The debate over canonizing two popes


                   John Paul II and John XXIII

    The double canonization Sunday of two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, is a first in church history, and it’s prompted a debate among commentators: Has the church rushed too fast to declare John Paul a saint, especially in view of his record on clerical sex abuse cases? Is the addition of John XXIII to the canonization roster merely a political balancing act by Pope Francis? And should popes be canonized at all – is it really possible for the church to make a dispassionate judgment on the holiness of men who sat on the throne of Peter and were called “Your Holiness” in life?

    The record-setting speed of John Paul II’s canonization does, indeed, raise some questions. The “Santo subito!” (Sainthood now!) banners in St. Peter’s Square at the funeral of the Polish pope reflected the sentiments of many faithful who thought his deep spirituality, evangelizing energy and strong defense of human rights made him a saint for our times.

    Yet what pushed his cause through so quickly was support at the highest levels of the hierarchy. At that same funeral, the man who would be elected as John Paul’s successor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, told the faithful: “We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.” In effect, that’s like declaring someone a saint – all that was left was to make it official. And to speed things up, Pope Benedict waived the normal five-year waiting period to begin the sainthood process.

    As time has passed, however, and the contours of the sex abuse scandal have become more defined, John Paul’s record has come in for criticism. In particular, critics have focused on the Polish pope’s long support for the late Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who was later unmasked as a sexual abuser of his own seminarians, a man who led a double or triple life, kept mistresses and fathered children. For decades, the Vatican turned a blind eye to accusations against Maciel; John Paul’s defenders have always said the pope was not aware of the evidence against Maciel. That was the line taken last week by Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the priest who guided John Paul’s sainthood process. Oder told reporters the Vatican saintmakers had investigated the Maciel case and concluded: “There is no sign of a personal involvement of the Holy Father in this matter.”

    It should not be forgotten that John Paul II was the pope who established harsh penalties for priests who sexually abused minors, approved changes that made it easier to defrock abusive priests and denounced such abuse as an “appalling sin” and a crime.

    The debate over John Paul’s record on sex abuse revolves on issues of governance and management, and here is where the Vatican and critics seem to be on different pages. Most people view canonization of a pope as a canonization of his pontificate. But in recent years, the Vatican has repeatedly suggested that sainthood for a pope is more about personal holiness than papal job performance. In that sense, declaring Pope John Paul a saint is not the same as endorsing every decision he ever made, or his management style. He is being held up to the faithful as someone who lived the Christian virtues in an extraordinary way, not necessarily as “Pope John Paul the Great.” As Pope Benedict once put it, “Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned.”

    The decision to canonize John XXIII at the same time reflects several factors. First, Pope Francis is clearly inspired by John XXIII’s pastoral style of governance, his direct style of communication and his emphasis on mercy over doctrine. As Massimo Faggioli points out in his excellent new book, John XXIII: The Medicine of Mercy, both John and Francis came from poor families and brought with them to the Vatican an emphasis on the church’s attention to the poor and suffering.

    A primary factor in Pope Francis’ decision is the Second Vatican Council, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. By adding John XXIII, who convened the council, Pope Francis moved the focus of this canonization away from John Paul II and toward Vatican II.

    Some have portrayed the move as a political one, aimed at balancing the “liberal” John XXIII, who opened the church to the world, and the “conservative” John Paul II, who pulled the church back to more traditional practices and identity. I think that’s a partial reading. While it’s true that John Paul set some limits to the innovations that followed Vatican II, he also embodied those changes in ways that upset Catholic traditionalists: he celebrated liturgies that often adopted non-Roman elements; he wrote hard-hitting encyclicals on social and economic justice, critiquing capitalism; he built bridges to science, endorsing the theory of evolution and saying the church had erred in condemning Galileo; he was the first modern pope to visit a synagogue and pray in a mosque; he presided over mea culpa ceremonies apologizing for past wrongs, including the excesses of the Inquisition and the crusades, and the moral failings of Christians during the Holocaust. In short, there’s plenty of evidence that, in many ways, John Paul II embraced the spirit of Vatican II.

    In canonizing two diverse protagonists of the Second Vatican Council, I think Francis is trying to move past the interpretive battles over Vatican II, and is saying that sainthood is bigger than differences in papal policies.

    One of the arguments against canonizing popes is that process turns into the hierarchy canonizing itself. Certainly, a papal sainthood cause brings with it a lot of political baggage, and there’s a risk that Vatican factions might use canonization to silence criticism of a previous pope.

    Ironically, it was John Paul II who wanted more “ordinary” saints, and for years he tried to get the Vatican’s saintmakers to find lay people and married couples to canonize. This weekend, however, the sainthood spotlight is shifting back to the top of the hierarchy.  Read More...

  • Two popes, two saints, two questions

    Pope Francis today chose April 27, 2014, as the canonization date for Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, a move that sets the stage for one of the most unusual and significant events of modern church history.

    Proclaiming as saints two of his predecessors taps into some deep populist sentiments among Catholic faithful. Yet it also raises questions about the saintmaking process and the relationship between sainthood and papal performance.

    The date chosen by Pope Francis makes sense. From a practical point of view, it gives Polish pilgrims in particular an opportunity to travel to Rome at a time of year when roads will presumably be free of snow and ice. April 27 is also Divine Mercy Sunday, which Pope John Paul made a church-wide feast to be celebrated a week after Easter. The pope died on the vigil of Mercy Sunday in 2005.

    Last July, Pope Francis approved a second miracle attributed to Blessed John Paul II’s intercession, clearing the way for his canonization. At the same time, in a surprise move, Francis proposed that Blessed John XXIII be canonized at the same time, even though a similar second miracle was lacking.

    Francis had a number of reasons for taking this unusual step. For one thing, the church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, convened by John XXIII. For another, the new pope has clearly found inspiration in the vision and style of John XXIII, the much-loved Italian who was pope from 1958-63.

    I’m convinced the pope also wants the dual canonization to be a unifying event, demonstrating that diverse models of holiness have a home in the Catholic Church.

    But the canonizations inevitably raise questions, as well. One is procedural: in most cases, the church’s saintmaking norms call for approval of two miracles before canonization – a first miracle before beatification and a second one before canonization.

    If a pope simply waives the miracle requirement (and no one is questioning his right to do so), what does it say about other pending sainthood causes? Are we reaching the point where miracles are no longer needed as a divine seal of holiness?

    I spoke recently about this issue with Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, who formerly headed the Vatican’s sainthood congregation. He told me the miracle requirement was not disappearing.

    “Of course, sainthood exists independent of a miracle. But it’s still a valuable confirmation of holiness,” he said. The waiving of the second miracle for John XXIII was simply the exception that proves the continuing validity of the rule, he said.

    An even thornier question is to what extent, if any, canonization endorses or exalts a pope’s decisions as head of the universal church. In 2009, when the cause of Pope Pius XII was being hotly debated, the Vatican addressed this issue, saying that while the sainthood vetting process must take into account the historical context in which a person lived, it was “not a judgment on the historical effects of all his operative choices.”

    Likewise, Pope John Paul II once said that in beatifying or canonizing a pope, “the church does not celebrate the specific historical decisions he may have made.”

    Nevertheless, for many Catholics, the church will be canonizing “John Paul the Great” and not simply a very holy man. His role in the demise of communism, his global travels, his political skills and his development of the church’s teaching authority, in the minds of many, are all part of what made him a saint.

    On the other hand, critics who fault the Polish pope for his handling of the priestly sex abuse scandal are bound to question the wisdom of this canonization.

    I expect that in coming months we’ll hear the Vatican explain that these popes are being held up as models of virtue and holiness, and not inducted into a papal “hall of fame.”

    Historical note

    The custom of proclaiming popes as saints was strong in the early church, an era in which many pontiffs were martyred. Of the first 50 popes, 48 were declared saints. That trend stopped in the Middle Ages, and over the last 700 years only two popes have been proclaimed saints.

    It seems that recent popes are on a much faster track to sainthood, a trend inspired in part by Pope Paul VI, who launched the sainthood causes of Pius XII and John XXIII at the end of the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII was beatified in 2000. John Paul II was beatified in 2011.

    At present, the causes of Pius XII and Paul VI have advanced to the point where they await only a miracle for beatification, the major step before canonization. The cause of Pope John Paul I is also being studied at the Vatican.

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