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Beatifying the Polish Pope


Pope John Paul II and former US President Bill ClintonThe next big event in Rome is the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Like most Roman events nowadays, it has been preceded by excitement and controversy. The excitement has been most notable among Polish Catholics.

After Mary MacKillop's canonisation, Australians have a better idea of what it all means.

John Paul's reputation for holiness has been judged well-founded, and he may now have a place in public liturgy in some local churches. He is a man of his own time and place, a local tile in the mosaic of the people notable for their faith who compose the universal church.

Karol Wojtyla was a larger than life size figure closely identified with his time and place. He came from a nation whose particular form of faith distinguished it from its often hostile neighbours. The Polish church was disciplined and had a sense of embattlement. He himself was a man of deep faith and prayer, and a natural leader in his church.

From his early years as a seminarian he confronted ruling powers inspired by totalitarian ideologies hostile to Christian faith. They particularly attacked the Polish Catholic links through the Pope to the broader church. They tried constantly to exploit divisions among Catholics.

He learned the importance of a unified Catholic voice and strict discipline, particularly among bishops and clergy. He also saw clearly the moral wasteland the Communist regime had created, the strength of popular disaffection with it, and so the weakness that beset its apparently unshakable power.

When he was elected Pope he brought his Polish experience and history, together with his personal instinct for the dramatic gesture, to the universal church, His gift and moral force, shown in his indomitable recovery from the attempt on his life, eroded the legitimacy of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. His personal role in the fall of the Berlin wall and in the gaining of freedom from oppression and fear by the peoples and churches in Eastern Europe was significant.

No wonder his beatification has been so enthusiastically received in Poland and in much of Eastern Europe. He was a man of their times and place, as much a Polish Catholic as Mary MacKillop was an Australian. As they did with Mary MacKillop, Catholics in other parts of the world can join the Polish people and others in celebrating and thanking God for the gift of a faithful and brave person.

The controversy about the beatification of Pope John Paul II is not about his virtue or his historical significance. It asks about his legacy to the Catholic Church, and in particular whether a program that was right in Poland in hard times was, and will be, right for other places and for the situations that face other churches. Some have considered that the beatification of the Pope means that his program is now canonised as normative for the church of our day.

This is an open question. It is legitimate to ask whether the directions in which Pope John Paul II led the Catholic Church were beneficial to it or not.

Those who have reservations point to the increased centralisation of the Church under the Pope, withdrawal from the openness to change implicit in the governance of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, and the appointment of compliant bishops to significant sees.

They argue this has made the engagement with Western societies and Asian elites, through ventures like the new evangelisation and popular gatherings like World Youth Day, bound to fail. Catholics are left to deal with a world they are not encouraged to understand except in polemical terms.

This, of course, is as one-sided an account of John Paul II's pontificate as are the hagiographical versions. Both accounts are less about the Pope than about the future of the Catholic Church.

We have now had time to survey the local attempts throughout the world to invigorate the Church along the strong lines proposed and embodied in John Paul II. In my view, they have had little success, and have tended to alienate the Church further from the culture in which it must commend the Gospel. The proclamation of the Gospel to our grandchildren's world will demand exploring the questions posed by modernity to which John Paul's legacy has left us too ready answers.

But whatever our views on these matters, the faith, courage and humanity of Karol Wojtyla, expressed in his distinctively Polish and combative form, can be celebrated by all people as one tessera in the mosaic that is the struggle for freedom. They can be celebrated by all Catholics as one tile in the mosaic that is a faithful church.

His beatification also encourages us to ask whether other tiles in the mosaic may prove to be more significant for the Christian proclamation of the Gospel today. 



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Pope John Paul II, Poland, beatification, Karol Wojtyla, berlin wall, communism, Catholic Church



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Existing comments

An unbelievably great man, in many ways; one of the great actors and public relations geniuses of the century, as Colm Toibin has written; a terrific force against some totalitarian regimes, for freedom of thought and faith, as beacon of hope and courage; and no pope ever was as honest about Christianity's murderous past with the Jews, and no oope ever knelt and pologized for the sins of the Church, either. But is this same pope, who marginalized women, who would not allow the same anti-totalitarian energies loose in Latin America, and who most egregiously supervised a Church in which thousands and thousands of horrendous rapes were committed against children around the world -- is he a saint? I am sure there are many saints who were in ways we know and do not know awful people; but whenever I hear the words JPII and saint mentioned in thre same sentence I think of screaming children. Did he do much to protect them, to hammer their rapists, to fix a structure that allowed and even protected them?

Brian Doyle | 29 April 2011  

A good, fair article. I hope not too many people give up on it before it gets to the "on the other hand" phase.

Jim Jones | 29 April 2011  

When I was in Spain a few years ago a Spanish Jesuit said publicly that JP2 was possibly the worst pope in history. I can never forget the way his anticommunist blinkers made him take a position at Medillin that would have cheered oppressors in South America no end. I can never forgive the injustice and cruelty of his ferocious campaigns (wholeheartedly aided, of course, by Ratzinger) against people like Kung and Boff, and finally the personally vindictive and ignorant actions he attempted to take against Sri Lankna theologian Tissa Balasuriya - simply because the latter wanted to take Mary's social and political milieu into account when building up a sense of her. More recently there was the dreadfully retrograde support he gave to Opus Dei and The Neocatechumenal Way - and the misguided support for Maciel, the serial sexual offender. But Andrew mentions the most distasteful feature of his pontificate, his stacking the dioceses of the world with backward looking Bishops who could be relied on to do all they could to stymie the ongoing process of the Church's growth in the spirit of Vatican 2. Funny sort of holiness is all I'd say.

Joe Castley | 29 April 2011  

How could JP II be considered a Saint??? His long reign and his disastrous handling of the sex abuse scandal over so many years. His friendship with Marciel, his convoluted phenomenology, the huge loss of Catholics to the Church during his reign, the terrible appointments to the bishops and hierarchy and so much more!!!

Trent | 29 April 2011  

Andrew, I enjoyed the article but would add as a cause for concern the haste with which the beatification has come about.

Mark Needham | 29 April 2011  

In South America, John-Paul's communist phobia brought about the demise of liberation theology, the persecution of its heroes, the reinforcement of repressive juntas, the escalation of opression and poverty and the deaths of innocents.

Vacy Vlazna | 29 April 2011  

Comments of most others suggest what I have believed for some time ,that there were two phases of reign of JP 2 .Pre & post Ratzinger becoming de-facto Pope through ailing years of JP2.

The Regressive Bishops (as visible in Oz as anywhere )maybe had more serious intent of assuring Ratzinger of his desire for Papacy .Also assisted by enforced resignation of all other potentials in their 75th year ,yet available himself in 78th year . A sad bit of history of our beloved Church .

John Kersh | 29 April 2011  

Andrew's essay reminds me of the answer given by an old Trappist laybrother when asked if they were any saints in his community.

He replied: "They are all saints. And they are divided into two groups. Those that observe the Rule perfectly and those that have to put up with them."

It seems to me that if one takes a combative approach to dealing with one's social/political/religious opponents one runs the risk of adopting their tactics.
If democratic centralism was the way a small clique exercised control in the communist parties, so hierarchical centralism was to be the way to combat them.
Of course there were groups/forces (eg those oligarchs who now control the Russian economy and American billionaires) other than the Catholic Church that wanted to see communism defeated.

Wittingly or unwittingly JP2 was part of an anti-communist United Front that contained many undesireable characters, just as ruthless in their pursuit of power, property and prestige as the communists.
JP2's later criticism of unfettered capitalism and rampant consumerism fell on deaf ears. He had served the purpose of opportunistic anti-communists.

Saintly Popes can be as blinkered as the rest of us where realpolitik is concerned.

Uncle Pat | 29 April 2011  

TRENT, are you questioning the wisdom and teachings of Holy Mother Church in the way saints are chosen? Trent and others commenting here are listing JPII's failings as reasons he cannot be considered a saint. Maybe we should ask what being a saint means.....certainly doesn't mean being perfect or sinless.

AURELIUS | 29 April 2011  

Find a copy of "The Mission", a true story. Watch it, and think again about why a leader such as JP2 had to do what he did. We live in an imperfect world.

ian | 29 April 2011  

This so-called beatification is a timely reminder of the need to get rid of some silly, outdated practices. Why do we need to make celebrities of fellow-pilgrims? We have Jesus, and we don't need to put anyone else on a pedestal and call them a "saint". For anyone on earth to declare that someone else is in Heaven just seems to me to be the height of arrogance.

And when it comes to the particular case of Karol Wotyla, I think Joe Castley's remarks say it all.

Peter Downie | 29 April 2011  

Pope John Paul II's 27-year reign ended as paedophile allegations began to engulf the Church. Saints are not perfect; JP II did many good things and may well be a saint, but the Church's declarations of sainthood should always reflect exemplary lives. Fr Hans Kung has observed that JP II presided over 'the worldwide system of covering up cases of sexual crimes committed by clerics . . . engineered by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger' (the present Pope). Is this canonisation driven by a Vatican agenda to close off questioning of serious leadership failures of that period? These involved centralisation of power, defiance of Vatican II and the arguably criminal exposure of vulnerable children to priests accused of predatory behaviour by transferring them to new parishes - all occurred with the advice of the then Cardinal Ratzinger, the present Pope approving the canonisation process. Even in secular governance terms, Benedict’s role in JP II’s beatification is a clear conflict of interest. Benedict was involved in the failures of leadership by JPII and is therefore conflicted in support for his canonisation. Why the rush? - John Henry Newman was beatified 120 years after death, and Mary MacKillop 85 years.

Peter Johnstone | 29 April 2011  

Why not let the 'Chasers' cover the TV coverage !

ziggy | 30 April 2011  

A man who travelled much yet had his eye off the ball in respect to the large underclass of impoverished workers in Asia and Latin America. Also not enough wholesale sackings of kiddy fiddlers. But regardless of that, he is still a saint like the untold millions of impoverished peoples.

Michael Webb | 30 April 2011  

TO beatify JP2 (warts&all)is to automatically beatify Ratzinger ,who afterall was de-facto pope for much of the reign of JP2.Further ,I feel he cultured most of the warts ,especially some of the most dire ie failure to adaquately address child abuse .Then to refuse resignations of Irish Bishops based on the shame of their failings on that issue .

Yet the Bishop of Toowomba who has been publicly applauded for stating he would liquidate Church assets if necessary to totally support abuse victims ,has now been sacked by Rome .

Surely all Christians still in the Catholic fold should express their disapproval by withdrawing their support until this absurdity is repealed .

John Kersh | 01 May 2011  

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