Pope Benedict XVI

Pope John Paul II becomes Saint John Paul II

Today Pope John Paul II was elevated to the rank of a saint. This canonisation has not been without controversy. Many have objected to canonising a man who did a few scandalous things, while those most in favour have pointed out that Pope John Paul II was in fact a holy man, who showed great courage and did a lot of work towards restoring the credibility and stability of the Catholic Church after inheriting the mess that Pope Paul VI had left behind.

The best articles I have found discussing the issue of canonisation's infallibility are the following:

One of the articles makes the point that the purpose of canonisations has changed, from affirming what was already practiced to essentially declaring new people as models for public veneration. That, the author notes, is a sad development. It is a point owrth remembering, and there, as in so many other spheres within the Catholic Church, a restoration to previous practice would very much be in order.

My view on canonisations is quite clear: We are bound to submit to the authority of the Church to declare that a person is in Heaven. We are not, however, bound to accept that everything the person did was good. In fact, we are not even required to believe that the person is a good role model. I would argue that we previously had to do this, but since canonisation has lost much of its past rigour and purpose, it is my understanding that we are within our rights to recognise some of the saints as ignorable.

Not being a theologian or a Church historian, my purpose is not to write a treatise on the rights and wrongs of this canonisation, but just to offer a few words of reflection, especially on our Pope John Paul II of fond memory.

As I am keen to tell virtually everyone with whom I engage on the topic of God and the Christian faith, I was not raised a Catholic. The process of becoming a faithful practising Catholic to the best of my ability and in accordance with the tenets of the Church owes much to the last few  years of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

I was indeed mesmerised by the courage and resolution he showed in his final moments, to the extent that I had to ask myself: How can he be so serene in the final days of his life? Might he perhaps know something that I don't? A few days after Pope John Paul II died, Cardian Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope, and he more than any other, is the one I have to thank. In his writings I found a clarity, assuredness and vigour that I had not experienced. It can be argued that Pope John Paul II's most admirable act was promoting Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to be head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In other words, I do not know much about Pope John Paul II, despite the fact that he was Pope for the majority of my life to date, and despite the fact that I always admired the man. I have  read that his Koran-kissing caused a lot of scandal, and we have the infamous Assissi meetings. During his pontificate he promoted modernists and other heterodox people, and did not do enough to promote orthodoxy as the only viable option. On the other hand, I have read that he steadied the ship after the confusion caused by Paul VI, that he helped bring down the evil communist empire, that he was courageous in fighting communism even before he became Pope, at great cost to his own personal safety, that he was always concerned with the unit of the family from his earliest days as a priest.

What I can gather from Pope John Paul II comes from his statements as Pope and his encyclicals. In reading his many encyclicals, I see a man who had a burning desire to bring people to God, one who was keen to promote Jesus Christ as not one teacher among many, but as the way to eternal life, one who wanted the Church to engage the world, but on the terms of Jesus Christ, truth itself. In his words, I see a man who is very clear on what the God requires of all individuals - not just Catholics. I see a man with a burning desire to teach, which is probably why he wrote so many encyclicals.

One thing I am sad to note about Pope John Paul II is that he did not show much courage in how he ran the Church. He did not stomp out dissent, although he at least kept it quiet. He did not affirm the importance of traditionalism, and it seems as though he thought one could have Catholicism without its various traditions - cultural or sacred - something which has shown itself to be very misguided. He did not seem particularly intent on promoting the Tridentine Mass, and it is unfortunate that his most notable excommunication is that of Archbishop Lefevbre, which could have been avoided if Pope John Paul II had been keen on passing on apostolic traditions through the timeless Mass and other practices.

I am still unsure as to whether his most memorable contribution to the Church will be his decision to allow altar girls (one which hopefully will be reversed when the Novus Ordo mass dies out), or his Theology of the Body, or the publication of the 1983 Code of Canon law, or the publication of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. Some of these are more honourable than others, but such is the nature of his pontificiate that there were many...


Subscribe to Pope Benedict XVI