The Beatification of Pope John Paul II
How on earth could the Holy See not invite Tony Blair but invite Robert Mugabe?
To be frank, all the preparations – the disinterment, the vials of blood for veneration, media communications – were all rather upstaged by yesterday’s Royal Wedding. Perhaps the House of Windsor was getting its own back after the 2005 clash, when the death of a pope caused (by cosmic coincidence) the cancellation of another royal wedding (except, of course, that Buckingham Palace made the announcement of the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton before the Vatican decided on this bank holiday weekend to beatify Pope John Paul II – the clash was entirely the fault of the Vatican's saint-making department). Relations between the Holy See and the Royal Family have not been so tense since the 16th century. Or at least since Mother Teresa died with days of Diana, Princess of Wales.
If His Grace is being honest, it is all being done with unseemly haste. Not because (unlike the most recent beatification of Cardinal Newman) the corpse of the late Pope has barely begun to rot (though that is doubtless true). And not because by choosing to re-position Pope John Paul II’s tomb in the Chapel of St Sebastian they are obliged to exhume and rudely eject the current incumbent of that location, the Blessed Innocent XI (1676-1689: so much for ‘rest in peace’). But because as impressive (chronically, politically and spiritually) as the pontificate of John Paul II was, it wasn’t as important as that of Pope Peter I or even of Pope John XXIII – both of whom might have merited a little law-bending and flexibility on the usual beatification process. It is unseemly because questions remain about far too many unresolved issues, and doubts are still circulating about certain under-explored matters. Yes, he bestrode the expansive 20th century like a colossus and helped to bring down the iron curtain to reunite East and West. He was to Roman Catholicism what Thatcher was to Conservatism: he was to the Church of Rome what Reagan was to The White House. Together, they were the triumvirate which confronted the tyranny of Communism, and with their conviction, confidence and courage they defeated it.
But what did he do about the constant drip-drip-drip of reports of paedophile priests? How could he turn a blind eye to tens of thousands of raped and tortured children? Was he involved in a cover-up? Why did he grant perpetual asylum and immunity from prosecution to Cardinal Bernard Law, who ‘was not only aware of egregious sexual misconduct among his subordinates but was apparently engaged in elaborate efforts to cover up incident after incident of child rape’. What about his long support for Austrian Cardinal Hans-Hermann Groer? Why did he not intervene against the founder of the Legionaries of Christ movement, Marcial Maciel, a notorious abuser? What of his fierce opposition to ‘liberation theology’ in South America which served to perpetuate oppression? Why, in the context of a global HIV/AIDS pandemic, did he tenaciously oppose any revision to his church’s often contradictory and severely restrictive rules on sexual ethics? Why did he resist any investigation into the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church? Bernard Fellay, of the Society of Saint Pius X recently incommunicated by Pope Benedict XVI, sees Pope John Paul II as a sort of Antichrist for instigating and participating in multi-faith prayer conferences, particularly in Assisi in 1986. He is of the opinion that this beatification is a ‘tsunami’ against faith.
The cult of John Paul the Great has gained an unstoppable momentum. For many, he inspires holiness and piety. For others, the hagiography is an impediment to a genuine appraisal of his achievements: it is more about delusions and a pathological religiosity. Those who laud the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI tend to blame his predecessor for many of their church’s present woes. Those who venerate John Paul II tend to be those who oppose Benedict’s reforms: it is the conservative traditionalists versus the liberal modernisers, just as it is in the Church of England.
But beatification is not about endorsing political policy or every attribute of character. The Roman Catholic Church is not ‘making’ John Paul II ‘blessed’: in Roman Catholic theology, they are affirming what has already occurred in heaven. So why the rush to pronounce it? By all accounts, he led a holy and virtuous if not heroic life, and he seemed to radiate the pastoral love of Christ. But why ‘Santo Subito’?
We live in an era of instant coffee, email and twitter. ‘Santo Subito’ was the immediate sentimental cry of an spontaneous outpouring of grief. If the late Diana, Princess of Wales had been Roman Catholic, there would have been the same sentimental demand for her to be set on an immediate path to sainthood, as Mother Teresa has been. There would have been no harm in delaying this process in accordance with Church tradition. The chronological 'pause’ was purposeful, to permit perspective, objectivity, reason and reflection. It took more than a century for John Henry Cardinal Newman to make it. It is ironic that Benedict XVI, the most intellectual and reasonable of popes to occupy the Throne of St Peter in centuries, should succumb to this sort of dianafication.