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Pray for Blessed Pope John Paul II

Michael J. Matt POSTED: 5/2/11
Editor, The Remnant  

( Sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it?  But that’s the topsy-turvy way of the modern Catholic Church these days. Those still "hanging in there" are faced with little certainty, lots of question marks and endless novelty. One pope dramatically streamlines the process for beatification and canonization, and then his immediate successor and best friend in life beatifies him in record time.  Can we  blame Catholics in the pew for being a wee bit skeptical?  Some even question if the rush to beatify might have had less to do with heroic virtue than a certain ecclesial opportunism, capitalizing on the memory of an exceedingly charismatic figure.

Who knows. But what many of us would still like to know is: Why the rush? Pope John Paul was dead. His soul was either in heaven, purgatory, or (God forbid) hell, and it made no difference to him when he was beatified. So why not follow the rules and silence the critics?

Arguably, his soul may even have benefitted had the beatification followed the usual timeline. After all, when was the last time you prayed for a saint! By all accounts, his millions of fans were praying to John Paul immediately upon his death in 2005, prompting some to wonder how many remembered to pray for him, then or since.

My daughter, Isabella Marie, was just three years old when Pope John Paul died. Naturally, she insisted on praying for him that very night and every night since. I often wonder if the santo subito crowd might not regard such zeal as an insult.  He was, after all, John Paul “The Great”—the most famous man on earth. To pray for him now is to call into question his greatness as well as ours.

Ours? Yes, indeed! If a father is great in the eyes of the world surely his children can lay claim to some share of that greatness. And isn’t that what the santo subito fervor was all about, at least to some extent? Cafeteria Catholics proving their fidelity by shouting the accolades of a Pope the whole world loved? Santo subito became something of an absolution formula for a generation of Catholics famous for its dissent from Church teaching.  Shouted often enough and loud enough, it covered a multitude of our sins as well as the many failed policies of the pontificate. He was, after all, a superstar. As one commentator put it when John Paul visited Ireland in 1979:  “It was a rock concert with a pope!”

On the other hand, one cannot find fault with John Paul for our infatuation with his celebrity. We are behaving as narcissists typically do. It’s all about us and the moment. Ours was a pope without equal because we are a people without equal! Never mind the generations of Catholics to come that will have no emotional connection to John Paul and no particular reason to call any of us “great” after our generation and its leaders left them a legacy of spiritual desolation. They’ll no doubt have found their own heroes by then.

That’s just the way it is with heroes untested by time and history. In the minds of millions of Lady Gaga fans today, John Lennon—once “more popular than Jesus Christ”—might never have existed, so largely forgotten is he. And that’s the way this will be, once the TV cameras have turned away and the media move on to the next thing. No man is great until history judges him so, which is why the rush to beatify John Paul strikes many Catholics as an attempt to preemptively overrule history’s inevitable verdict against a problematic pontificate that left the human element of the Catholic Church in chaos.     

For now, however, John Paul is great because we want him to be.  The vox populi, which more often than not these days is reduced to parroting the vox paparazzi, is final so long as we live and breathe. We want a hero. Bored with lives suspended by the rotting cords of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, we’ll sleep in sewers if it means a chance sighting of a royal—any royal!—be he politician, pop star or pope. And when we catch sight of one of our media-made gods, we might well burst into tears like those little girls did at Elvis Presley concerts years ago, convinced we’re in the presence of the Divine, incapable of distinguishing between raw fame and true greatness.  He’s ours. We were there. We heard his voice. He made us something. Beatify him! Beatify us!

With such a cult of personality at their disposal, it’s no surprise the Vatican wasted little time using John Paul’s incredible popularity with the world to try to shore up the Church’s beleaguered image, with some inside the Vatican no doubt recognizing a golden opportunity to beatify the Second Vatican Council by beatifying its most famous son. Never mind that the beatification fast track completely bypassed the unpleasant history of the last thirty years. Never mind that the cries of santo subito seem motivated less by an appreciation for fidelity to doctrine and more by a somewhat adolescent preoccupation with celebrity.  John Paul must be a saint!  We the people declared him so the moment he died. The Church followed our lead because we know best!

It took four hundred years to canonize Thomas More—a giant among men who gave up everything for the Church, and was left despised, imprisoned and  headless for his trouble.  The mob wasn’t on his side. Yet his heroic virtue withstood the test of time, and, after centuries of due process, was finally proclaimed by the Church—exactly as it should have been. To this day, no one doubts his greatness or his holiness. Why? Because the Church in her wisdom took her time and proceeded according to heaven’s timetable, leaving no room for doubts and question marks here on earth.

Given his flawed pontificate and the suspicious fast-tracking of his beatification, the same can never be said of Blessed John Paul. This is not fair to him, to those who loved him, or to the Church. This is political opportunism on the part of a Vatican reeling from bad press and endless scandal.  

But history will record that not all Catholics went chasing after the crowd. As of April 25, 5,000 Catholics from around the world had signed The Remnant’s Statement of Reservations Concerning the Impending Beatification of John Paul II, for example--a small and humble initiative that nevertheless garnered immediate support from all around the world. The vast majority of its signatories included prayer pledges similar to that of Mr. Hellner’s from Stockholm, Sweden, who wrote: ”I will pray for the soul of John Paul II who because of the infatuation of the people did not get the help and prayers that he, as Pope, deserved.”

The Statement was signed by Catholics on six  continents— by priests, professors, journalists, lawyers, working men, and housewives. It was translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Polish and German.

Curious about the very notion of a remnant in a day and age when only the majority matters, the secular press covered the modest Statement with a degree of professionalism not often seen anymore. It was referenced in newspaper and Internet articles on both sides of the Atlantic, in South America and in Africa and Australia. Word of it appeared in reports on ABC News, USA Today, the Associated Press, the Catholic Herald, the New York Times, etc. 

And when National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., the Associated Press in Rome, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation approached us for further comment on the fast-tracking of the beatification, to a man their reporters had no trouble understanding the reasons why loyal Catholics were raising alarums—because Catholics have always been rightfully proud of the Church’s chain-dragging approach to approving miracles and canonizing saints; because saints and miracles are by definition exceedingly rare and always exceptional; and because fast-tracking the process for anyone or any reason runs the risk of encouraging skepticism and undermining the Church’s credibility.

Why neo-Catholics have such difficulty grasping that which even secular journalists understand instinctively is anyone’s guess. And it’s not as if traditionalists were the only ones with reservations. A quick Google search reveals widespread opposition, both in the Church and out. The conservative founder of Ignatius Press, Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, though no traditionalist, also had concerns.  Just days before the beatification he told NPR: “The Vatican should take more time with the head of the Church. As the pope he’s an historic figure, and usually historic figures don’t take their place in history until after some history has gone by and they can be assessed from a longer distance.” (NPR’s All Things Considered, “John Paul’s Rise Toward Sainthood: Going to Fast?”, 4/28/11)

Nevertheless, there was no response from the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, even weeks after the Statement had been sent to Angelo Cardinal Amato.  Apparently, the vox populi is taken into consideration only when it echoes the vox vaticanus. No matter. The Remnant's initiative had never presumed to try to harness the kind of firepower needed to stop the beatification. It was first and foremost about injecting more sober considerations into the discussion. The Holy Father’s jersey was to be retired at all costs; we knew that. 

Only time will tell if the Vatican will insist, even after so much opposition, on making a Hall of Fame bid by canonizing the pope who, despite his personal holiness, oversaw the greatest period of scandal and auto-destruction in the history of the Church. After all, the shouts of santo subito are already yesterday’s news and, unlike beatification, canonization involves papal infallibility. Surely, the Vatican realizes the Holy Ghost will not allow politics to stretch quite that far.  In the meantime, let us pray for the repose of the soul of Blessed John Paul II. MJM

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