A popular pontiff, but is it too soon to put John Paul II on the road to sainthood?


The late pope’s handling of the sex abuse scandal casts a shadow over his beatification, writes PADDY AGNEW

IN HIS beatification as in his life, John Paul II prompts bitterly contrasting opinions. For his supporters, his beatification tomorrow in the Vatican at a service presided over by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, is but the most logical development for a holy man of patent goodness and moral probity.

For his critics, the ugly shadow of the clerical sex abuse crisis which developed into a raging bushfire during the latter years of his 27 year long pontificate begs a serious question about the appropriateness of this beatification.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was but the latest of a number of critics to express reservations about John Paul II when she wrote earlier this week: “ . . . How can you be a saint if you fail to protect innocent children?” Not only is there the question of John Paul II’s apparent “blind eye” to the burgeoning sex abuse crisis in countries like Ireland and the US but there is also the embarrassing extent to which he was duped by Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. For years during John Paul’s pontificate, Fr Maciel, thanks largely to his prodigious fund-raising abilities, enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Holy See.

Yet last year, the Vatican described Fr Maciel as someone who had lived a life “deprived of scruple and authentic religious sentiment”, thus tacitly admitting accusations that he had not only abused seminarians but that he had also fathered three children with two different women. Can a pope who got it so wrong about one of his most prominent priests really be a good candidate for beatification and, of course, eventual canonisation? Supporters of John Paul are totally unfazed by this objection. They say that the question of his management, or indeed mismanagement, of some church affairs does not impinge on his spiritual, moral and holy qualities. Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Cause of Saints, recently pointed out that the late pope was being beatified not because of his “impact on history or the Catholic Church” but rather because of his “heroic” virtues, the way he lived the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.

Supporters also argue John Paul II was never interested in the day-to-day running of the Vatican ship so he simply delegated huge responsibility to his closest and most trusted advisers. The problem is he may not always have received the best advice from those trusted Curia aides, many of whom were unforgivably slow to recognise not only the worldwide dimensions but also the sinful depravity of clerical sex abuse.

Then, too, there is the obvious question prompted by the relative rapidity of his beatification which comes just six years and 29 days after his death on April 2nd, 2005, making it the fastest beatification in modern times. Is this not an unseemly rush, ask critics? Even some senior Curia figures reportedly have their reservations.

In a very obvious sense, this fast-tracked route to sainthood clearly began during John Paul’s funeral when those “Santo Subito” (Make Him A Saint Immediately) banners spontaneously appeared in St Peter’s Square. In the early church, saints were declared by popular acclamation. To some extent, this seems to have happened to John Paul II.

Then, too, there is the consideration that the cause for the beatification of John Paul has had one very important sponsor, namely his successor Benedict.

John Paul’s longtime private secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, once told experienced “vaticanista” Marco Tosatti that no adviser was more important to John Paul than the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Put simply, when he had an important decision to make, he consulted Cardinal Ratzinger. Whilst that observation may prompt concern about some of those decisions (especially in relation to the sex abuse crisis), it nonetheless indicates the close links between two very obviously different popes.

Contrasting opinion on the figure of Karol Wojtyla is nothing new. During his pontificate, supporters saw in him a charismatic, dynamically evangelical pastor who played a vital role in the downfall of East Bloc communism. Critics, on the other hand, including some Catholic critics, bemoaned his hard-line conservative teachings, especially on sexual mores.

Inevitably the figure of the first non-Italian pope since 1522 was at times complex, if not mysterious. Those western liberals who were often at odds with his ultra-conservative teaching on sexual morality, priestly celibacy, women priests, homosexuality, divorce and abortion were more than likely to find themselves in total agreement with his repeated calls for an end to third world debt and for serious curbs on the world wide armaments industry.

No one who attended the United Nations World Food Summit in Rome in November 1996 will ever forget the ironic parallels between John Paul II’s speech and that of his alleged archenemy, Cuba’s communist leader Fidel Castro. Both men made similar calls on the privileged West to finally face up to its moral responsibilities re the developing world and the growing North-South, rich-poor gap.

Karol Wojtyla was clearly an enigma. An archconservative in theological terms, he was ultra-modern in his willingness to harness the tools of the age – television, air travel, internet – for the purposes of his evangelical mission. No pope has ever taken Christ’s final exhortation to the Apostles more seriously: “And he said unto them. Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (St Mark Ch.16, V.15).

In an interview with Rome daily, La Repubblica last weekend, John Paul’s long-time senior spokesman Dr Joaquin Navarro-Valls suggested John Paul was “passionately” committed to getting out his message. The problem was, however, that he was often such a good communicator that people, in particular the media, tended to become obsessed more with the messenger than the message.

Recalled by Navarro-Valls as someone who “never wasted a minute but yet was never in a hurry”, John Paul II was a man for whom prayer was not so much an obligation as a necessity. While it is probably wrong to recall him as a politician in religious clothing, he nonetheless made a huge impact on the affairs of man by his repeated willingness to denounce injustice, social tensions and warfare in places as diverse as the Holy Land, Lebanon, ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda – not to mention the invasion of Iraq.

For all those and many more reasons, his supporters are not surprised by the relative speed of his beatification. Indeed for them, the “Blessed” John Paul cannot become “Saint” John Paul quick enough. All the indications are that their best wishes will shortly be fulfilled.