Normally, I use my column to discuss American politics and foreign policy rather than journeys of faith, in either the figurative or literal sense. This week, I make both as I travel to Rome for the first time, to attend the services that will beatify Pope John Paul II, the last step in the Roman Catholic Church before sainthood. Yet some have objected to the Vatican’s recognition of the journey of the former Karol Wojtyla, and the enduring lessons and sacrifices that he gave as both a man and the leader of his flock.
Critics have opposed the beatification of John Paul II due mainly to the failure of the Catholic Church to deal properly with a widespread scandal involving child abuse in the parishes. The abuse occurred both before and during John Paul II’s papacy, as did cover-ups at high levels in dioceses around the world. Other criticisms appear more aimed at the timing of the beatification, or of John Paul II’s defense of Catholic doctrine, especially on birth control, abortion, and the role of men and women in sacramental roles within the church itself.
The Catholic Church took too long to confront the issue of priests that abused children, hid them from scrutiny for far too long, and initially failed to deal with it openly when the issue began to break open over the last 10 years. The Pope serves as the chief executive of the global church, which makes the organizational failures his responsibility. John Paul II never attempted to evade that responsibility, and though the church moved too slowly, it did make significant changes to address the scandal, and the culture of silence and secrecy that allowed the problem to fester long before Karol Wojtyla became a priest, let alone a pope.
In one sense, the objections miss the point. The Roman Catholic Church will not “make” John Paul II a saint. The four-step process of canonization officially acts as a recognition of a status granted by God. The candidate has to either be a martyr, such as Friar Maxmilian Kolbe, or someone who lived a life of exemplary faith, and in either case must be seen as the source of prayers on behalf of others that allow for miraculous intercessions. What they don’t have to be is perfect.
It would take a much longer column to debate miraculous intercessions, but let’s put that aside for the moment. The question for the church and its critics is not whether John Paul II was a perfect pope or a perfect man. The question is this: Did John Paul II live a life of exemplary faith that changed the world around him? And the answer is: Did he ever!
Even before Wojtyla became a priest, he put himself at risk to help Jews targeted by Nazis in Poland. Edith Zierer tells a specific story of how the young seminarian saved her life after fleeing from a concentration camp as the Soviets pushed the Nazis back in January 1945. After the war, as Poles adopted Jewish orphans and asked Wojtyla to baptize them as Catholics, but he refused unless the child was told of his Jewish heritage first, as Michael Berenbaum reported. In his quiet way, the future pope tried to push back against the annihilation of Polish Jews; he extended that process as pope in his effort to heal the wounds of two millenia by declaring and celebrating the commonalities between Jews and Catholics, recognizing the state of Israel, and furthering ecumenism.
When Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, he did not forget the bondage suffered by his fellow Poles and others under the grip of Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe. He became the most significant pope in global politics since perhaps Pope Pius IX, the last ruler of the Papal States, who famously declared himself a “prisoner in the Vatican” after the unification of Italy in 1870. Unlike Pius IX, however, John Paul II was no passive flotsam in history’s seas. He took an active role in delegitimizing Soviet rule in Poland and encouraging defiance. Lech Walesa credited John Paul II with infusing Poles with courage to resist, and Mikhail Gorbachev later said that the fall of the Iron Curtain “would have been impossible without the Pope.”
John Paul II saw the evil of a regime that built walls to detain its subjects, with guards to shoot those who dared to try to escape, and which demanded that people declare their devotion to the state rather than choose to give it willingly to God. Unlike many in that time, he chose to act to dismantle evil and free millions rather than search for a way to peacefully coexist with evil and consign slaves to their chains. And he managed to bring down one of the 20th century’s most murderous empires without an army of his own.
Even in his slow decline toward death, John Paul II served as an example to the world of the dignity of the suffering and dedication to his faith. Popes rarely retire, although there are a few precedents. Even in the infirmity of his Parkinson’s disease, John Paul II put his trust in God, who had called him to lead the Catholic Church until the end of his life. Rather than heed calls to step down from his position, the pope bravely carried out his charge until he drew his last breath, the faithful servant to the end.
No man or woman is perfect, and neither are any of the saints. Even St. Peter, who first led the church in Rome, denied Jesus Christ three times in the first hours of the Passion. John Paul II was human, and in a real sense, that’s his value as a saint. We forget the power one person can have in fighting evil, helping the oppressed, and serving as an example of faith and love, and we need those such as John Paul II to teach us.
My journey of faith did not start with John Paul II, and it will not end in Rome this Sunday. But it is a better, richer, more uplifting journey to have traveled some of it with as great a man of faith as John Paul II, and I will be humbled and honored to attend his well-deserved beatification.