Joanna Bogle reflects on John Paul II’s papacy and its ongoing legacy in light of his recent beatification
A spring morning in Rome, and by 7am the crowds have already packed out St Peter’s Square, and are filling the long road that leads down to the river. By 10am it is impossible to get anywhere near that area, and people are gathered instead in piazzas around the city, staring at great screens as the drama of the liturgy begins to unfold. John Paul II is about to be formally declared Blessed by his successor, Benedict XVI.
We didn’t get much of this on our TV screens here in Britain, as things were dominated by our magnificent Royal Wedding just two days before. And a beatification, even of a world figure whose funeral six years earlier had dominated all news, isn’t must-watch viewing for most British on a Sunday morning.
But in Rome, with something between one-and-a-half and two million people crowded into the city, focused on St Peter’s, and everything else at a standstill, this was the latest in the extraordinary drama of the life and message of Karol Wojtyła, John Paul II. When he was elected Pope in 1978 – the first non-Italian Pope for over four centuries – his fellow Pole Cardinal Wyszynski, Archbishop of Warsaw, told him ‘it will be the task of this Pope to guide the Church over the threshold of the new Millenium’. While the world pondered the reality of a Pope from what was then the Communist bloc, and the massive political earthquake that might (and did) eventuate from that, the drama of the pontificate of John Paul II was to see the papacy in a much wider role than that and with deeper implications which will have an impact for years to come.
Was he a saint? Naming someone as ‘Blessed’ is the first stage in canonization and a declaration that the person is already in heaven, able to pray and intercede to God from there. Hence the awaiting of a ‘sign’, a miracle, prayers answered. As has been widely publicized, a French nun who invoked John Paul’s intercession received an overnight cure from Parkinson’s Disease, and after lengthy investigations this has been accepted as an authentic miracle – at the beatification ceremony she carried a relic of John Paul to Pope Benedict in celebration.
Love and service
A person is honoured as a saint because he or she is holy – prayerful, loving, faith-filled, serving God and neighbour, loyal to the Church and to Christian teachings. It is all about faith, hope and charity. Worldly success doesn’t come into it, and of course a saint can make honest mistakes, can fail in all sorts of endeavours. What matters is the faithfulness, the devotion to God, the love and service of fellow-men, the loyalty to the Church and her mission.
Opposition to John Paul’s beatification came from various quarters: some who passionately disagreed with his defence of Catholic orthodoxy, some who believed that John Paul could have done more to seek out and punish bad priests, some who loathed him because they hated the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and saw themselves as ‘traditionalists’ upholding truth against his errors.
Of these, probably only the second group really resonated: could John Paul have done more to tackle the scandal of bad priests? All the evidence is that he took swift action once the facts became known. He certainly initiated a massive sense of renewal and re-invigoration of the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church: today’s young priests, formed and forged in his pontificate, are notably orthodox in their beliefs, committed to evangelization, traditional in their liturgy, and confident in their priesthood.
Which brings us to the drama of his Papacy – those huge gatherings with literally millions of people at Mass, World Youth Days with young people on their knees before the Blessed Sacrament or lining up to go to confession, Pope John Paul flying in to be greeted by vast crowds and kneeling to kiss the ground as he arrived, and his preaching with those memorable phrases ‘Do not be afraid!’ ‘Open wide the doors to Christ!’
Was it all just drama? Were there long-term fruits? Leaving aside the collapse of Communism, what was achieved? Certainly a re-invigorating of a Church that had seemed to be reeling from post-conciliar shock in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and which was seeking a way of interpreting that Council with authenticity and vigour. By the Nineties the papacy, which had seemed a vulnerable and frail voice in public life in the Seventies, was a ringing and clear voice speaking to every continent and taken more seriously than perhaps ever before in its history.
John Paul II had dispensed with the papal tiara – this was no worldly office concerned with ruling some Papal States, but the office of Peter, with a task directly and in an absolute sense linked to the authority given to that Apostle by Christ. Teaching the nations, spreading the Gospel – this was what drove John Paul on his missionary journeys. All the speeches, the banter, the leading young people in song, the kissing of babies and the affectionate blessing of the sick and the elderly were part of this. Make no mistake, this was a missionary at work.
This made people uncomfortable. John Paul II wanted to bring people together across frontiers of ideology and even of religion, he wanted world peace, he wanted us all to make some sense of our lives – but at the heart of it all was a Christian faith which was uncompromising. So those who rather liked his peace-and-goodwill messages were also confronted with something else: the reality of Christ, the possibility that Christianity might be true, that the Church might be more than just a worldly institution, that for all its faults it might carry a message that could not be discarded.
As the years go by, John Paul II’s papacy will be seen in its accurate perspective. At a time when it was crucial to do so, he drew people together, and emphasized – as no other Pope in history had done – the true nature of human beings as one family. He was absolutely genuine in his desire to emphasize our common humanity and to see an end to war and to the hideous destruction of lives and hopes that war brings.
He was absolutely genuine in his desire to bring together people of different religions and emphasize what was in common in terms of service to the poor and striving for meaning in life and working for the common good. And he combined all this with a Christian vision of extraordinary force.
John Paul II was a philosopher. His chief theologian – and close friend and colleague – was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who succeeded him as Pope. The drama of John Paul’s papacy rested on the strong theological insights of this man. And both were powerfully committed to the renewal of the Church promised by the Second Vatican Council, which hallmarked their ministry and that of the Church and the fullness of which we are seeing and will see over the next decades.
Ring of truth
There is no triumphalism here: at the turn of the millennium John Paul took the lead in having the Church examine her life and mission, apologizing for errors and injustices in carrying it out in the past. He saw humility and suffering as part of the Christian life: his own final years were marked by an illness which made it difficult to look dignified and which brought acute physical pain and incapacity.
There was no hiding. And the authenticity of this made the other things he had done in his ministry – the forgiveness of his would-be murderer, the gathering together of people from different religions at Assisi, the fraternal bonds with Christians of different traditions, the ground-breaking warm friendships with Jews – have a ring of absolute truth about them too.
I am an unapologetic fan of John Paul II. I believe his life was one genuinely devoted to God’s service, and that there were in it gifts that marked the Church in great and even glorious ways in accordance with God’s plan: the visit to a synagogue that opened wide a door of love and friendship with massive implications, the challenge to Marxism that saw the complete collapse of the ghastly Soviet system with its decades of misery and cruelty, the extraordinary evangelization of youth with a message of hope.
Yes, he is worthy to be named Blessed. Invoke his aid in your prayers. Ask him to beg God for the things you need, large and small. When we speak in the Creed of the ‘communion of saints’ we aren’t lying – we are affirming a truth that has concrete results. John Paul II was a great man and a great Pope, a poet, playwright, philosopher, teacher and man of prayer. He was a father-figure in an age where fatherhood was ignored or denigrated, a priest in an age which had thought it had no time for religion, a bearer of good news in an era which had seen hideous wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Thank God for John Paul II.
This article originally appeared in the July 2011 edition of New Directions.