An estimated 2 million pilgrims are expected to descend on Rome May 1 for the beatification of John Paul II after Pope Benedict XVI signed off Jan. 14 on a miracle attributed to his intercession.
Following a fast-track to beatification on account of the popular acclamation in the weeks after his death, the Venerable John Paul II will then become just one step away from being proclaimed a saint.
And as happened at his funeral in 2005, tributes have been pouring in for the late Polish pontiff, not just from Catholics but also believers of other religions. Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar, said that if he were to have had a vote in the late Pope's consideration for sainthood, he would have been “honored” to consider him a saint, “not a saint without flaws or human fallibility, but a saint nevertheless.”
But Berenbaum makes a point, which, ironically, a small minority of Catholics opposed to John Paul II's beatification appear to have missed. On both the left and right wings of the church, a few people who view John Paul II as failing to live up to their perceptions of an ideal pontiff have voiced their dissent to the news.
For some of those on the left he was, among other things, too authoritarian and repressive of progressive views. On the right, he was not disciplinarian enough, and failed to restore the papacy to a “golden age” which they believe reached its apogee during the pontificate of Pius XII.
John Paul II, by his own admission, had character flaws but his defenders argue that for a saint to be the embodiment of perfection is, in any case, a myth the Church has never believed.
“I know of no saint, not St. Peter himself, who was perfect, but many who loved the Lord unto death,” the veteran American theologian Michael Novak told Newsmax. “Canonization is not a false claim of human perfection, but a recognition of daily heroism in ordinary habits and deeds, as if a man or woman lived in Christ, and Christ in them.”
As an example, Novak recalled the over 100 foreign trips John Paul II made to spread the gospel message. “Who of us, watching this good Pope lift himself by sheer submission to the will of God as he climbed airplane steps for still another attempt to 'go teach all nations,' did not know we watched a hero of unflinching habit?” he said.
In his latest book on John Paul II, “The End and the Beginning,” papal biographer George Weigel argues that both of these critical groups of Catholics offer “unsatisfactory” analyses as they frame the papacy as some kind of political office whose leader who can change “policy” as he wills.
A more apt framework, he says, is to look at the Pope through the eyes of Catholic tradition, and to try to understand how John Paul II, in his own personal way, worked hard to live up to that tradition.
But another perceived failing, one attributed to Pope Wojtyla, is the church's handling of the clerical sex abuse crisis, and in particular the “Long Lent” the U.S. Church suffered in 2002.
In his latest book, Weigel argues that John Paul II did all he could to root out the crime, bring the perpetrators to justice, and set the church back on the right course.
“No one having the slightest acquaintance with Karol Wojtyla could doubt that he had been appalled by what had come to light during the Long Lent,” Weigel writes. Mistakes were made of course: The Roman Curia didn't advise the Pope well; U.S. bishops made many serious errors; and John Paul II himself was perhaps too wary of accusations of sexual impropriety having seen communist intelligence in Poland use such methods to destroy reputations of priests and bishops.
But Weigel nevertheless believes John Paul did all that had to be done. “When the Pope was informed of what was necessary to do in the United States, he did it. Period,” he recently told Rome Reports, a television news agency.
And John Paul II's defenders consider it absurd to suggest that the late Pope had any role in the false moral reasoning, relativism, and moral laxity — notably in seminaries — that grew out of the 1960s. Such critics, Novak said, “do not give Pope John Paul II the immense credit he deserves for beginning the “counterrevolution” against false progressivism.” He cited the late Pope's many encyclicals, in particular Veritatis Splendor (the Splendor of Truth) — a profound 1993 defense of the church's moral teaching.
For these reasons, some prefer to call him simply John Paul the Great — a man with self-confessed human failings, yet nevertheless a holy Pope with a deep devotion to Christ and his mother.
“Those who think the standards this time were not high enough should beware,” warned Novak, “lest their own standards be used against them at the Final Judgment.”
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