The recent canonizations of popes John XXIII and John Paul II have inspired a number of people to become modern-day Dantes and put the canonized pontiffs in hell. I have been overwhelmed by the negative responses to the Vatican’s decision to confer the highest worldly/divine honor on these two men, even though it was expedited. Individuals with clearly personal vendettas against the Catholic Church have channeled their anger into unjust criticism of two “responsible” figures. I will make my concessions up front and admit that the Church is not a perfect organization. Some of its decisions were highly questionable, and some actions betrayed its very mission. I suppose this proves that Church leadership is shockingly human, as in mortal and flawed human beings are in charge. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
One opinions columnist in particular from The New York Times inspired my response. Maureen Dowd begins her column with an early reference to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as John Paul II’s own Rasputin. The problematic nature of this comparison challenges coherent response. I mean, Benedict was clearly such a crazed and troubled pseudo-mystic, right? The man fed fish in a koi pond while he prayed to the Virgin Mary each morning when he stayed at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. But, this is not about Benedict. Dowd essentially argues that John Paul II does not deserve sainthood because the “globe-trotting ostrich” failed to respond appropriately to the sexual abuse crisis. The abuse scandal scares me as a columnist, and I dare not touch it with a metaphorical 10-foot pole. I admit this and move on. Dowd’s excessively vindictive argument made me think, however: What makes a man or woman a saint today?
The Catholic Church adheres to a formal process in order to declare someone a saint. He or she must be declared a “Servant of God” first, and an exhaustive investigation of writings and eyewitness accounts begins. When sufficient information has been amassed, the candidate will be declared “Venerable.” The next step is Beatification. A candidate who is confirmed as “Blessed” is endorsed by the Church as someone thought to have entered heaven. Sainthood demands the verification of at least two miracles wrought through the saint’s intercession after his death. Typically, there is a five-year waiting period after an individual’s death before the Church can initiate the canonization process, but the pope can waive this requirement. Benedict did this for John Paul II because of the intense demand for his sainthood immediately upon his death (at his funeral the crowds chanted “Santo Subito!” essentially meaning, “Make him a saint right away!”). If you walk around the restaurants and shops near the Vatican, you will undoubtedly see pictures and prayer cards for John Paul II. Although the current pope, Francis, has deservedly ascended the ranks of international popularity, one still wonders if the Italians and Poles know that John Paul II is no longer our pontiff. The people adored John Paul II. He loved and promoted the youth. He opened the Catholic Church to new and more love-based relationships with other faiths. He pardoned and embraced those who tried to kill him.
Our friend Dowd at The New York Times makes only minor swipes at the legitimacy of the canonization process. She does not necessarily take exception to what would advance the cause of John Paul II, but objects on the grounds of what should have prevented him from becoming one. The complex combination of power, responsibility, and truth places John Paul II and all other popes under constant scrutiny, even post-mortem. They occupy the “highest” position on earth-the closest to the divine-and critics like Dowd unfailingly measure their actions and inactions against a standard approximating holy perfection. There was never a perfect saint, though. The beauty of sainthood is its humanity and the hope that it gives the rest of us. They are not our idols or golden calves-they are not gods. They were very human humans who learned how to embrace their darkness so that it might be made light. They do not answer prayers but intercede on our behalf. There has been a lot of pain caused by the Catholic Church and a lot of suffering inflicted on it. Perhaps what we need is not more criticism or bitterness, but healing. Perhaps, we could start with a prayer for the intercession of Saint John Paul II.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.