This weekend marks a historical event, the beatification of Pope John Paul II in Rome. The event is historic in the remarkably short period of time in which it is taking place, a mere six years after his death in spring 2005. It also marks the first time that a Pope (Benedict XVI) has overseen the cause for his immediate predecessor’s sainthood.
John Paul II was a truly transformational figure in that he humanized the papacy. His charisma, his energy and zest for Christ and the Church inspired millions, and his message of the hope and freedom found in Christ Jesus left an indelible mark on the world by contributing to the break-up of the tyrannical Soviet empire and the reviving of the Church, which had fallen into decay after the tumultuous cultural clashes of the 1960s and 1970s, which saw some 45,000 priests leave the priesthood and saw Europe divorce itself, culturally and politically, from its Christian roots.
John Paul II’s death was met with cries of “Santo Subito!” (Sainthood now!) from the thousands of mourners in St. Peter’s Square and from millions of the faithful around the world whose lives he had so touched. John Paul inspired thousands of youth to enter religious life and to defend their faith by living it out in their daily lives. Even non-Catholics recognized this man as a leader, a peacemaker, and a man who sought to change the world for the better.
On the eve of his beatification, the media has predictably begun its assault on John Paul II’s legacy as Pope, attempting to dismiss his achievements while focusing on his mistakes, principally in regards to his handling of the sexual abuse crisis and his friendship with the founder of the Legion of Christ, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, now disgraced as a criminal for his abuse of seminarians and fathering of illegitimate children. The media of course, wants to paint John Paul II as a perpetrator of the cover-up and culture of secrecy within the Church hierarchy, when in fact he was a leader in reforming the priesthood, investigating seminaries around the world for heretical practices, unfit candidates, and general dissent from the moral and theological teachings of the Church amongst priests, bishops, and religious.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, had a scathing column regarding the push for John Paul’s sainthood entitled “Hold the Halo,” published in Sunday’s edition of the Old Grey Lady, America’s “Newspaper of Record.” Dowd claims that JPII “forfeited his right to beatification when he failed to establish a legal standard to remove pedophiles from the priesthood.” In fact, it was under John Paul that a thorough investigation of the priesthood was conducted and canonical statutes of limitations were done away with.
While the sexual abuse scandal has left a stain on the Church hierarchy, Dowd and her crowd fail to acknowledge that the actions of those in the Church do not define the Church; rather, the Church is defined by its teachings and its existence as the Body of Christ, not the criminal actions of a few wayward members of the episcopacy. As Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York recently wrote on his blog, “it’s especially tragic when someone leaves Jesus and His Church because of a sin, scandal, or slight from a priest or bishop. If your faith depended on us, it was misplaced to begin with. We priests and bishops might represent Jesus and shepherd His Church, however awkwardly — but we are not Jesus and His Church.”
Perhaps Dowd’s biggest dislike for Pope John Paul II rests not in his efficacy in handling the abuse crisis, but his adherence to the timeless teachings of the Church, which are Truth. While praising his stands against the evils of Communism, Dowd writes, “as progressive as he was on those issues, he was disturbingly regressive on social issues- contraception, women’s ordination, divorce and remarriage.” Dowd’s use of the word “regressive” to describe efficacious defense of Truth is misplaced. “Regressive” implies that we had “made progress” as a Church on these moral issues, and that John Paul somehow returned us to the Middle Ages. She posits that John Paul protected the Legion of Christ and Opus Dei because they acted as “the shock troops in John Paul’s war against Jesuits and other progressive theologians.”
Since the cultural revolutions of a generation ago, the “shock troops” in the war for moral relativism and secularized culture devoid of any religious expression have been trying to apply political labels to an institution founded on the teachings of an eternal being, Jesus Christ, not the temporal desires of mere mortals. It is in this distinction that these so-called “progressive Catholics” miss the boat.
When Jesus asked us to take up our cross and follow Him, he didn’t say we were going to be skipping through a meadow having a picnic. Jesus himself was controversial; his actions and teachings went against convention and political correctness, which is the reason he was crucified.
I am always amazed by people who call themselves “recovering Catholics.” Many of these individuals are Baby Boomers raised on the Baltimore Catechism and taught to fear God as an angry being by nuns who never should’ve been nuns. This goes back to Archbishop Dolan’s saying that if your faith is allowed to be formed by priests, bishops, or nuns, who are mere sinners like all of Christ’s body, your faith is misplaced. Coincidentally, these “recovering Catholics” also tend to be obsessed with a Church they claim to want nothing to do with, claiming that the Church is “repressive” and needs to “modernize.” I had the opportunity to sit in on two meetings of a graduate course on oppression at UNC’s School of Social Work, and was struck by the professor and the student’s fixation with the Catholic Church as a source of “oppression”, stemming from its teachings on the sanctity of life and marriage.
Two Catholic friends of mine attend the School, and view their interest in helping the less fortunate as a calling from God and a way in which to live out their faith. Both have told me that Christians are viewed as suspect within the School of Social Work, and that most have an anti-religious bent. I would venture to say that these “recovering Catholics” have lots of regrets and remorse about their past, which serves as the source of their animus toward not just the Church, but to God. We all have Truth written on our hearts, as Aquinas said. Perhaps when we yearn for the Church to change to fit our views, we are trying to avoid admitting that we have made mistakes? It seems, then, that we must remember that God yearns to forgive; indeed He already has forgiven us.
I am reminded that to follow Christ is not easy. I myself struggle with the teachings of the Church often. How do I reconcile the Church’s teaching on marriage with my friendships with individuals who are gay or lesbian? If I accept Church teaching, do I betray my friendship and love for my friends who happen to be gay? Can I stand for life, even when that life is a result of a crime, such as rape or incest, despite the fear of being painted as unreasonable, or anti-woman? I, like many Catholics, I suspect, constantly juggle the temporal and the eternal, the faith and the tainted culture in which we live. It’s a journey, full of ups and downs, triumphs and failures, revisions and more revisions. I am comforted in knowing that though these teachings may sometimes be hard to swallow, it is Truth-with a 2011 year history. I am constantly evolving and asking how best to follow the example of Christ.
What keeps me going is the knowledge that while we are all sinners and we all experience periods of uncertainty, sadness, and feelings of failure, the Church is a rock, an anchor, a constant on which we can always depend on to remain the same as we navigate a world of change. It is comforting to know that though my children will grow up in a world radically different from the world I grew up in, I will be able to impart to them the same Truth my parents taught me and their parents before them. Truth is not politically correct, it is not malleable, and it is not handed down on the whims of men. As such, defense of Truth, as in John Paul’s case, is not a cause for ridicule, but for admiration.
If the Church were dependent on the actions of men, it would’ve been dead on arrival. St. Peter, the first Pope, denied Jesus three times! And yet he went on to shepherd Christ’s Church! While John Paul might have done more to combat the “filth in the priesthood,” as Benedict XVI so rightly coined it, to make his shortcomings cloud his contributions to the world is to diminish a man who arguably changed the course of history, and most definitely inspired an entire generation. Lay faithful, religious, priests, bishops, popes, and even saints are sinners. Only Jesus was without blemish. So while those who wish to turn the world into a relativistic cesspool will spend the weekend fuming over John Paul’s beatification, I will be watching the ceremony, and praying that I, a sinner, might be granted mercy and the grace to follow Christ, like John Paul did so well. Santo Subito!