Pope John Paul the Great!
(… or Great Disappointment?)
For several hundred years, from his introduction by Pope Urban VII in 1631 until John Paul IIís 1983 revised Code of Canon Law swept him away, a Promoter Fidei (Devilís Advocate) systematically challenged a candidateís claim to holiness during the canonisation process. Less well known but complementing his role was the non-delegable duty of all lay Catholics to inform the Church of any evidence negating sanctity, whether called for or not.
This age-old service of lay devilís advocacy needs revisiting as the push continues for Pope John Paul II to become the first pontiff in 1,400 years and only the third in history to be called "Great"(1).
A pontiff effectively gains this title by popular acclamation rather than any ecclesiastical process or vote. So, by utilising internet capabilities to build on the hype and excitement generated worldwide by a suspiciously sympathetic media, proponents may rapidly get their way. Indeed, Rome has already favoured the appellation with quasi-official status, despite the unvoiced yet strong reservations of very many: those who also loved John Paul II dearly but baulk at the chaotic Church he left behind; the legacy, in large part, of his freely admitted human failings.
As the "Great"-juggernaut gathers uncritical momentum, therefore, some healthy Catholic reaction to our late Holy Fatherís emerging cult is warranted, sooner rather than later.
Nonetheless, such artifices notwithstanding, "The Great" crusade has been massively and sincerely embraced by Catholics everywhere.
Could they all be sincerely wrong? Have they perhaps confused the greatness of the man with the requirements for papal Greatness? Is it the same old blurring of distinctions between the office and office holder? Does the simultaneous clamour for John Paul "The Great" by neo-pagans and contracepting Roman Protestants - both informed by fuzzy feelings rather than infallible truths enunciated by their favourite Pope - mean anything at all? Does such fervently dissident support, in fact, destroy the credibility of the entire project and shed dubious light on John Paulís papacy instead?
These are just a few pertinent observations and preliminary queries for the objective Catholic observer, to counter both the purely emotive and more worthy arguments to the contrary which receive saturation press.
In 1979, for instance, shortly after his elevation to the Chair of Peter, news broke that Pope John Paul II had summoned the Dutch hierarchy to Rome. Faithful Catholic heads the world over began nodding in gleeful unison, as if to say: ĎThis is it! The counterrevolution cometh!í
As the Holy Father set about overseeing seventeen days of cloistered deliberations with the nine member episcopate, the striking symbolism was not lost on breathless trads and neocons. After all, what better place to start the Catholic restoration than the Netherlands: that living laboratory of Modernism and exemplar of postconciliar dissolution and decay.
Clearly, or so it seemed, John Paul was intending to champion the cause of the youngest bishop, Johannes Gijsen of Roermond, who had fallen out with his Modernist brethren by setting up, with Vatican blessing, an orthodox seminary to counter the five arch-liberal Theological Faculties which had long replaced local seminaries and snuffed out priestly vocations in Holland.
In sum, the papal summons bore all the marks of a game plan mapped out by a master strategist from the Polish school of hard knocks. This was the wholly reasonable assessment during those heady days of high excitement and expectation.
Instead of reprimanding and insistently redirecting the Dutch episcopate in an orthodox direction, however, John Paul II crushed the soaring hopes of the long-suffering faithful by quashing Gijsen and accepting the suppression of his seminary, while agreeing to a final declaration with the other eight bishops which announced the happy attainment of full communio.
Thus, within several weeks did knowing nods give way to bewildered shakes - establishing a familiar pattern of false dawns where expectation came merely to prefigure deflation. (Gijsen himself, for his orthodox trouble, eventually ended up as Bishop of Reykjavik, Iceland, overseeing six priests and four parishes!)
Notwithstanding the relative kid glove nature of Hans Kungís condemnation in December 1979, that move so early in Pope John Paulís reign also smacked of tougher measures to come against the most egregious dissidents: to parallel and complement the reining in of rebellious episcopates flagged by the Popeís Dutch summit. Likewise, however, it never happened in any more than the most irregular, piecemeal and usually ineffective fashion.
Papal restatements of liturgical discipline also started promptly (with the whip-cracking Inaestimabile Donum, 1980) and were always welcomed and disseminated by the Popeís fervent supporters fighting his corner daily in the parish trenches. Yet who can forget the near despair of these loyal troops when news broke of the Ďaltar girlsí capitulation. Few of the countless disappointments they endured in the John Paul II era were as devastating.
This chronic inconsistency persisted literally to the death. For no sooner had the Holy Father departed this world in suffering triumph over the Culture of Death he had fought like no other, than news arrived of Cardinal Bernard Law being honoured in the lead up to the conclave.
Forced to resign after his persistent complicity in the heinous Boston clerical sex abuse scandals, hopes were raised that Vatican action against Law might ensue. Yet not only was he not punished by the Pope, he was appointed archpriest of the Roman Basilica of St Mary Major, in which capacity he was named as one of only nine cardinals chosen to lead the papal memorial Masses. Abuse victims were deeply offended and rightly furious.
Ammunition provided by any one of those "lows" would fill the armoury of a Devilís Advocate way beyond bursting point: the aberrant papal Masses, the Koran Kissing, the Assisi debacles... .Yet underlying them all, as a brief perusal of CO back issues will verify, is the catastrophic legacy of John Paulís dogged refusal to govern and discipline - to exercise his supreme and absolute power of jurisdiction. It is this which constitutes the ace in the adversarial pack stacked up against his alleged greatness. Moreover, attempts to explain this yawning lacuna in his papal makeup only serve to weaken the case for the defence.
Take the Holy Fatherís inexplicable failure to act against homosexuality in episcopal and priestly ranks despite homosexual molestation of post-pubescent boys accounting for ninety per cent of clergy-sex scandals.
Writing on his intelligence website "To the Point", Jack Wheeler recounts how a Vatican source had told him that "Whenever Vatican investigators brought the results of their vetting process regarding an individualís candidacy for bishop, cardinal or other office, and they revealed he was a homosexual, John Paul II would refuse to believe it. He did so because accusing someone of homosexuality was a standard practice of the Communist government in his native Poland regarding anyone it regarded as an enemy of the state. From his ordination as a Catholic priest in 1946 to elevation to Archbishop of Krakow in 1963 and Cardinal in 1967, the then Karol Wojtyla witnessed this personal destruction repeatedly. So traumatized, he summarily dismissed such accusations as pope, and would approve the elevation of anyone so accused."
And so, as Wheeler duly notes, the Church today is "riddled" with homosexuals. Which, in turn, accounts for what then-Cardinal Ratzinger was on about in his scorching Good Friday meditations earlier this year, urging reflection on "How much
filth there is in the Church, even among those who, by virtue of their priesthood, ought to belong entirely to Christ!" The Pope-to-be also spoke bluntly of the Church as a "boat on the point of sinking, a boat taking in water on all sides." Christian Order could not have put it more pointedly!
Yes, we all share a sinful collective responsibility for our perilous state. But the fact remains that the situation deteriorated immeasurably on John Paul IIís watch. To suggest that things would not have been immeasurably better had he determined to exercise his full and supreme authority to enforce his own clear directives is as perverse as saying, against all the historical evidence, that Clement XIV (1769-1774) was right to suppress the Jesuits and that his doing so had no ill effect on the Church and the world.
As with Clement, of course, one might argue that Providence was at play - merely using John Paul IIís pontificate in the aftermath of Vatican II as a "winnowing fan" to purify the Church [see CO editorial, Oct. 2003]. But free will is a constant, and just as Clement took the line of least resistance in capitulating to the secular powers of his day, our late Holy Father clearly determined to appease a largely dissident and corrupt Western hierarchy: talking a good fight while letting tares flourish and finally dominate the wheat.
Consequently, since appeasement rarely works, and despite periodic glimmers of consolation (Clement even enjoyed a Nestorian patriarch leading six bishops back to Catholic unity), both pontificates deteriorated and took the Church with them
Accordingly, on Good Friday 2005, the future Pope Benedict addressed the Lord thus: "And also in Your field we see more darnel than wheat. To see the vesture and visage of Your Church so filthy throws us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures."
"We", certainly and ashamedly. But "lofty words and grand gestures" emanating from Rome under a Ďspare the rod and spoil the childí pontificate led the way.
A Polish friend recently restated this familiar case for her beloved Popeís defence in the following response to my plaint about his lack of governance allowing evil to thrive among the clergy:
Clergymen are people of their own time. One of the reasons why the Cardinals had chosen a Pope from Poland was that at that time, unlike the post-Vatican II West, priests here were not leaving the Church and there were still a large number of vocations. Why was that?
The Church was under severe pressure and particularly intense surveillance. The Security Forces had a whole department devoted solely to destroying clergymen; they organised and managed the Patriot Priests group; a portfolio on every single priest or even seminarian was held at the SF department; spies were everywhere. In these circumstances it was difficult to trust people you worked or lived with. Yet
despite all of this Cardinal Wyszynski managed to conduct the Church wonderfully. John Paul II said later on that the Polish Church is the Church of Wyszynski. He mentioned him also in his Will (testament). Why was he so important to the Pope?
And what was his strategy?
Because Wyszynski could not trust the bishops - i.e. being intimidated and therefore, often, willing to compromise too much - Wyszynski decided to go directly to the people, to go over that injured hierarchy. He would do a lot of travelling, visiting parishes, to organise prayer meetings. He took this huge cross on his own shoulders. And now we see how successful it was.
Now, the state of JP IIís Church was in similar condition - sick. It really does not matter whether the clergy are being plagued by a totalitarian system/culture or by liberal/Modernist visions, the devil is the same only with slightly different faces. The result is the same: people are losing their faith and pride allows them to see only the earthy perspective. The Devil promises them a better existence and satisfaction if …. . But in Godís perspective there is no "if." So, instead of arguing and fighting with individual bishops and inner structures, JP II assumed Wyszynskiís cross. He went on a pilgrimage to every human soul, till the last day of his life, trying to knock on every door. Just before He died he said, knowing that people (mostly young) were praying at his death bed (including my sister): "I have been looking for you and now you have come to me".
The Modernists kept flattering the world and saying that the Church should open itself to world. But now even one apparently irreligious TV journalist here in Warsaw said that JP II has opened the world to the Church.
On the other hand, with the Church now "so filthy" and "soiled", as Pope Benedict XVI put it barely a month before his election, perhaps it is less a case of the world "opening" to the Church and more that of "converging" with Her!
Moreover, Cardinal Wyszynski was a traditionalist whose interpretation of the meaning and scope of Vatican II aggiornamento opposed that of Cardinal Wojtyla, the quintessential post-Conciliar prelate. (Wyszynski, for instance, was against many proposed liturgical changes and wanted Latin retained. "The mystery should be in a mysterious language," he said. Wojtyla favoured the vernacular.)
So, even if one were to accept the existence of a Wyszinski-inspired papal Ďstrategyí of circumventing rotten episcopates via direct contact with their flocks, at the very least the great Polish Primate would have expected a simultaneous long-term plan to replace those same dissolute and discredited Modernist hierarchies with strong, uncompromisingly Catholic prelates - something John Paul II manifestly failed to accomplish. "There is no denying," wrote Fr. Brian Harrison in October 2003, "that mitred mediocrity still prevails in many countries after a quarter century of the present pontificate."
The Holy Father not only failed in this pivotal task, he knowingly promoted notorious episcopal dissidents like Walter Kasper and Karl Lehman to the Sacred College.
Because beyond the constant travelling there was, quite simply and tragically, no strategy; no intraecclesial papal master plan at all. Just appeasement and muddling through and resigned shrugs before an increasingly desperate state of affairs. Commenting on the Popeís reference during an interview to problems in the Church, Italian journalist Vittorio Messori observed: "I had the impression that he felt powerless to intervene."
And yet a corresponding powerlessness and inertia was notably absent when it came to interventions extra-ecclesia. The anti-Marxist socio-political manoeuvrings which cemented the Popeís name in history were robust and studied in comparison!
Quite clearly, Pope John Paul II had the power in its plentitude. He simply resolved not to exercise it: even as episcopal heretics spiritually violated souls en masse in open defiance of his teachings - heretics he could have easily brought to book; even as innocents were physcially defiled by depraved homosexual clerics while his episcopal appointees, men like Bernard Law, looked the other way - men he could have removed overnight.
If there was neither a plan nor the will to deal with the internal crisis, numerous biographies of John Paul II point to the underlying reason; a character flaw hardly conducive to papal Ďgreatnessí and one finally admitted by the Holy Father himself.
"He was a gregarious, sociable man by nature, so that the last basis on which he would wish to establish or sustain contact with other people would be through his authority. ... It would be difficult to call Wojtyla the Ďrulerí of his diocese. He did not wish to Ďruleí in any authoritarian, autocratic manner."
This extract from a 1979 biography of the Pope typifies the character portrayed in other works; a man steeped in the notion and practice of consensual "dialogue" from his earliest days and ever fearful of authority being misconstrued as authoritarianism.
As Cardinal Wojtyla he even found the liberal/progressive Vatican Council document on "The Church in the Modern World" (Gaudium et Spes) which he helped craft, too tough! "One of the major faults of ĎGaudium et Spesí," he declared during one of his
eight speeches at the Council, "is that in it the Church appears authoritarian." Yet this is a document so falsely optimistic that the founder of the US Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Professor James Hitchcock, believes that it might be heretical since it doesnít acknowledge the existence of sin!
Suffice to say that a papal mind which perceives the soft, pliable, sunny Gaudium et Spes as "authoritarian" is highly unlikely to embrace the pastoral notion of justice (for the faithful) through episcopal confrontation and punishment. And, indeed, in his final book of reflections Memory and Identity, released last month, Pope John Paul himself admits as much, wondering if he has been strict enough in his leadership of the Church.
While accepting that Church leaders have to admonish people as well as lead them in faith, the Holy Father concedes: "I think that in this aspect, maybe I have done too little. There is always this problem of how to balance authority and service. Perhaps I need to criticise myself for not having tried hard enough to lead."
The Man and the Papacy
A humble admission, typical of the refreshing candour which so endeared this extraordinary individual to people of all faiths and none.
Equally, candid questioning of the stature of his pontificate would not have bothered John Paul II in the least. One recalls the anecdote related by his close friend André Frossard, the late French writer, who during a visit with John Paul was waxing lyrical about his [Frossardís] utter dedication to the papacy only to find himself pulled up at length by the Vicar of Christ, who exclaimed: "You are too papist!" Make no mistake, there was naught of the Ďpapolaterí in this most open of pontiffs.
So we can safely beg to differ about "the Great" as a title now all but officially affixed to John Paulís pontificate. To debate the merits in no way detracts from the memory of a gifted man whose virtues and positive achievements have been copiously listed and analysed in publications across the globe. Above all, of course, his having "underlined in an unequivocal way the inviolability of the human being, the inviolability of human life, from its conception until natural death," as Pope Benedict declared at a Mass celebrated at the Lateran Basilica. Where he added, "The freedom to kill is not true freedom, but a tyranny that reduces the human being to slavery"- effectively summing up his predecessorís related contribution to the understanding of true liberty, championed as one who endured endgame materialism in both its deadly guises - the Socialist death camps and the consumerist abortion mills.
Yet all such truly admirable hallmarks of John Paul IIís pontificate do not add up to John Paul "the Great". Nor do the sum of his socio-political and charismatic dimensions which captivated the worldlings. Unless, of course, one views the Pope as the Ďspokesman for the conscience of humanityí, or a conductor who harmonises the polyphony of charisms, or the Ďguruí of the Church, or a mega-President of a humanitarian non-governmental organisation or ecclesial administrative council. Caricatured in that worldly light by a clueless media and divorced from the primary nature, purpose and responsibility of the divine office he holds, any Pope might readily assume a mantle of Ďgreatness.í
The Catholic reality, however, is that the Pope is the Vicar of Jesus Christ who in His name and through His mandate governs the Church. Before being a private person, he is a public person; before being a man, he is an institution: before being the Pope, he is the Papacy in which the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is embodied, centred and protected by the exercise of a doctrinal and disciplinary jurisdiction which, despite the relentless push for an empowered Collegiality, the Supreme Pontiff cannot delegate.
Through his signal failure to exercise this power of jurisdiction to govern and discipline - "to lead", as he himself put it - Pope John Paul II has cost the Church dear. Chronically fractured and chaotic, She now sports "more darnel than wheat", according to Pope Benedictís lament, and appears like "a boat taking in water on all sides."
Still, what to do in the face of unprecedented outpourings of love and admiration for the 264th Pope; a man of such faith and charisma, an inspiration in so many ways and a great historical figure by any secular reckoning? What title might do justice both to the man and the Papacy?
As Devilís Advocate-turned-mediator, here is a parting suggestion:
On 2 April 2005, when news broke of the Holy Fatherís death, Fr Frank Pavone of US Priests for Life accorded him two titles: "Today," he said, "we bid farewell to Pope John Paul the Great, the Pope of Life."
Why not just simply: Pope John Paul, "the Pope of Life" - a true and worthy appellation - and leave it at that.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him: May Thy humble servant and Vicar on earth, Pope John Paul, the Pope of Life, through Thy infinite mercy, rest in peace. Amen.
(1) Always bearing in mind, of course, that assessing "greatness" is a subjective process, unlike determining personal sanctity for sainthood, where objectively two miracles are required. The equally loud and frenetic but quite separate call for John Paul IIís instant canonisation will hopefully be judged by the Church without unseemly haste, through due process and prayerful discernment.