Words are promiscuous things. Because of their arbitrary nature, they have a willingness to be applied to any reality whatsoever. The four letters b-a-r-k, for instance, are just as happy to make reference to the vocal utterances of a canine as to the outer covering of a tree.
The fact is that if sets of letters with their associated sounds refer to anything at all, it is solely by the common agreement of the people who construct them.
This proviso is quite germane to the purpose of this article, which seeks to discover in what sense the word “saint” will be applied to Pope John Paul II on April 27, 2014. Will this word indicate the reality of heroic virtue that Catholics have always taken it to mean or will s-a-i-n-t have somehow gone off philandering with another reality?
In the past 50 years, Catholics have witnessed remarkable upheavals in every aspect of the life of the Church. At the same time, they have been told that the changes are merely accidental, that all things Conciliar have been in perfect continuity with the past. The older generation may recall the happy memory of Pope St. Pius X’s canonization in 1954, and they are told to welcome with equal gladness the elevation of John Paul to the same status in 2014.
But does “saint” apply to the two Popes in one same sense? We remember St. Pius X as the Pope of early Communion, the warrior against Modernism, the agent of liturgical renewal, the worker of countless miracles. We remember Pope John Paul II as the Pope of altar girls and lay Eucharistic ministers, the warrior of Ecumenism, the agent of liturgical desacralization, the worker of a miracle initially rejected and later accepted for his process. One was a prisoner of the Vatican, the other forever circling the globe. The one brought countless souls to embrace Catholicism, the other embraced countless souls in their errors.
The fact that two popes living in the same century could be at such antipodes is staggering enough, but when the word “saint” is prefixed to both of their names, the mind reels. Clearly, ownership of its conventional meaning has changed hands.
I thought that the most likely place to look to find s-a-i-n-t’s new signification would be the decree of Pope John Paul II’s beatification. Unfortunately, the document does nothing to rectify a state of discombobulation. It seems to be a personal reflection of Cardinal Amato, the Prefect of Saints’ Causes, that takes the late Pope’s sanctity more for granted than as needing to be established. His Eminence cobbles together various vignettes of the Pope’s life along with a list of secular and spiritual accomplishments. By failing to find any objective standard for sanctity in the decree, the reader is inevitably led to the conclusion that the new basis for the Church’s highest honor is quite simply this: the subjective approval of the “ecclesial community.” Perhaps that is the only thing that the letter makes crystal clear:
“The world’s reaction to his lifestyle, to the development of his apostolic mission, to the way he bore his suffering, to the decision to continue his Petrine mission to the end as willed by divine Providence, and finally, the reaction to his death, the popularity of the acclamation ‘Saint right now!’ which someone made on the day of his funeral, all this has its solid foundation in the experience of having met with the person who was the Pope. The faithful have felt, have experienced that he is ‘God’s man,’ who really sees the concrete steps and the mechanisms of contemporary world ‘in God,’ in God’s perspective, with the eyes of a mystic who looks up to God only.”
But we must not leave John Paul II’s new sainthood secure solely on the shifting sands of subjectivity. Popularity has no doubt been a canonization catalyst,1 but I think that we must search for something more objective, and without the help of His Eminence. The fact is that Pope John Paul II was indeed a towering figure of his time, and there was something great about him, in a secular sense. And greatness does not come by accident. It would be wrong to see his 27-year pontificate as a disconnected series of ecumenical scandals and disastrous decisions. No, for as with everyone who commands the world’s attention, the late Pope had two pre-requisites for a hero: firstly, a clearly defined Weltanschauung or worldview; and secondly, an incredible drive to fulfill it using his elevated position. Let us turn briefly to these two things to understand John Paul II and his popularity.
If St. Pius X’s “ideology” was to restore all things in Christ, John Paul II’s was to restore all things in man. He was the apostle of a new humanism. Time and again he would come back to the central principle of his ideology, found in two phrases of Gaudium et Spes,2 §22: “It is in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” and “By His incarnation...the Son of God has in a certain way united himself with each man.”3
Both of these texts, in the mind of the Pope, make clear for modern man something that had been lost in obscurity, namely “the greatness, dignity and value that belong to [man’s] humanity.” The revelation of this great dignity is the purpose of Our Lord’s Redemption and spreading the message of this dignity is the work of the Church. “In reality, the name for that deep amazement at man’s worth and dignity is the Gospel, that is to say: the Good News. It is also called Christianity. This amazement determines the Church’s mission in the world.” Such is the interpretation of Gaudium et Spes given by the Pope in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, §10.
Once men begin to appreciate their great dignity, revealed to them by Christ, they grow in mutual respect toward one another. But, as it stands, modern man has been damaged by atheistic humanism and greedy capitalism, which have led to hatred, violence, injustice, and poverty. He needs to rediscover the saving message of Christ and so find his true worth. How does this take place? Through the flourishing of religion—not the Catholic religion per se, but any religion whatsoever.
Religion puts a man in contact with God and so shows him his transcendence in relation to the world. It reveals his essential characteristic, personal freedom, which is the “measure of man’s dignity and greatness,”4 and the rights that flow from that greatness. As more men come to a consciousness of human dignity through the mediation of religion, they show greater respect for one another and begin to form a universal brotherhood, for “humanity…is called by God to be a single family.”5 Slowly but surely, there emerges a new civilization, a “civilization of love,” namely, “a convergent meeting of minds, wills, hearts, towards the goal that the Creator has fixed for them. This goal is [not heaven, but] to make the world a place for everybody to live in and one worthy of everybody.”6
It is the mission of the Church to be a leader in the promotion of the civilization of love. She does this in a couple of ways. Firstly, by promoting religious freedom, since if the world religions are to engender this civilization, they must have free scope to exercise their ministries. Secondly, by the practice of prayer. By prayer is meant a “flourishing of religious sentiment.” It is an activity by which a man expresses the transcendence of his person; manifests his freedom (since prayer is the place where the primacy of conscience reigns); puts aside his differences with his fellow man; and is drawn to solidarity and brotherhood with his fellow man. In short, prayer, which of old meant union with God, here means union with man.
Only when these principles of Pope John Paul are understood can we fathom the famous photograph of the leader of the Catholic Church standing in the midst of a menagerie of religious figures at Assisi, in a moment of collective, silent prayer. “The dream of the unity of the human family,” the Pope says. “I made this dream my own when, in October 1986, I invited to Assisi my Christian brethren and leaders of the great world religions so as to pray for peace.”7
The Pope committed himself, heart and soul, to this vision: the spreading of the message of the dignity of man in order to promote a civilization of love and establish universal brotherhood on this earth. This was his “authentic interpretation of Vatican II.”8 He thought to find in this vision a deeper understanding of the Gospel of Christ, and I think that it would be difficult to question his sincerity. But neither sincerity nor worldly greatness are proof of true worth; it is a very small thing to be judged by man, for he that judges is the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 4:3-4).
By his energetic promotion of a new humanism, Pope John Paul II was pleasing to the world. By the way in which he embodied the spirit of Vatican II, he was pleasing to neo-Modernist Rome. On the basis of this double popularity,9 the word s-a-i-n-t will be prefixed to his name in April 2014. Once, those five letters referred to a state of being pleasing to God. Today, they seem to refer to being holy in the sight of modern man. Unfortunately, on the basis of the new meaning, Pope John Paul does indeed deserve to be called a “saint.”
1 It seems that popularity is even sufficient to preclude the need for miracles in the case of Pope John XXIII. “There are several likely reasons for waiving the second miracle requirement for the canonization of Pope John XXIII, and the first is timing. The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, noted the ongoing 50th anniversary of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, convened by John XXIII. The spokesman added that John XXIII was much loved throughout the church, and that ‘none of us has any doubts about John XXIII’s virtues.’” Taken from http://www.johnthavis.com/a-pair-of-popes-headed-toward-sainthood#.Ujggg3-1WUN.
2 Bishop Wojtyla himself helped compose this document at the Council, as Cardinal Amato points out in the beatification decree.
3 Fr. Patrick de La Rocque, in his masterful Doubts about a Beatification (Angelus Press, 2011), quotes George Weigel’s biography of the Pope as follows: “No two conciliar texts have been so frequently cited in the teaching of John Paul II as sections 22 and 24 of Gaudium et Spes” (cf. footnote 133 on p. 39).
4 Doubts, p. 48, footnote 168.
5 Doubts, p. 46.
6 Doubts, p. 44.
7 Quoted in Doubts, p. 43.
8 Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in front page of Doubts. According to the Pope of the “hermeneutic of continuity,” John Paul II “internalized the spirit and the word of the Council” and “helps us understand what the Council wanted and what it didn’t.”
9 Time Magazine declared him “Man of the Year” in 1994, saying he was a “clerical superstar in almost perpetual motion.” George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and the same year, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. After his death, the epithet of “Great” has been applied to his name by Pope Benedict XVI and many other public figures. Even universities and other institutions have been dedicated to “Pope John Paul the Great.”