In my last posting I mentioned my reservations about the timeliness of the double canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. I fear that the canonization is not on the respective merits of the two popes, but is a “too little, to late” attempt to heal the growing potential schism in the Catholic Church between the extreme left and extreme right wings. John XXIII and John Paul II have each been mythologized to represent one or the other polar end of the Catholic spectrum, but whether declaring them each to be saints is a way to bring those two ends back into harmony and mutual respect—well, I appreciate the effort but I don’t expect it to be successful. To illustrate my point, one of my friends mentioned that in his Baltimore Parish yesterday, a parish that represents a far more liberal perspective than most, there was great to do about John XXIII and no mention of John Paul. On the other hand, the New York Times today mentioned a Brooklyn parish where all the attention was given to John Paul with almost no note of the Pope who called Vatican II. I know in my parish, there were pictures of the two popes on Sunday bulletin and holy cards with their pictures together distributed at the doors as people left, but no mention in the homily or prayers of the canonization. And while people took the holy cards, they just tended to put them in their pocket or their purse without comment. For a lot of us middle-of-the-roaders it was a non-event. We take Vatican II for granted and, with all due respect, John XXIII and John Paul II are, first and foremost, dead. While their memory may still inspire us to some extent, their influence is over for the 80% of the Church.
I wrote in the previous posting that the John of history differs significantly from the John of liberal mythology. Almost all of the changes we associate with Vatican II were actually the work of John’s successor, Paul VI—a far less appealing figure than the jovial John, but a man who had a very clear vision of where and how to bring the Church into the Modern World. This is not to denigrate John—far from it. He called the Council and he, much like the current Pope, was an attitude-changer. He was a good man and a devout man. I don’t see the “heroic sanctity” in him that sainthood supposedly requires, but then I hardly have—or had—access into the depths of his soul. And perhaps I set the bar of sainthood too high—it is just that when one is used to Thérèse of Lisieux, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola, John of the Cross, Rose Duchesne, Bernard of Clairvaux etc, your expectations get rather high. But who knows?
If John XXIII was a complex character about whom to write, John Paul is an extremely thorny character to assess. I was living in Rome when he died and when asked by a BBC commentator to give my opinion of his reign, I quoted Dickens: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
It was the best of times. John Paul was a rock star whose ability to hold tens of thousands enthralled was a powerful tool for evangelization. You had to admire the man—especially in his prime—not for what he did or said, but for his sheer ability to capture your attention and compel you to give him a hearing. And then there was the role he played in the collapse of international Marxism. Stalin once asked “how many divisions does the pope have?” and the irony is that it was this Pope who—according to Mikhail Gorbachev—was the principle player in the collapse of the Soviet empire.
It was the worst of times. When it came to the internal administration of the Church, John Paul was both as rigid as the most authoritarian autocrat and as unable to control his own bureaucracy as the most clownish dictator. He never got his Curia under control and the Curia took on a life of its own with petty monsignors in Rome dictating their preferences in liturgy, catechetics, religious life, ecumenics, and other aspects of Church practice and doctrine to Archbishops and Bishops throughout the world as if it were coming directly from the Chair of Peter. It led to a lot of confusion as one monsignor would issue a directive contradicting the edict of prelate in another Vatican dicastry. More seriously, the economic scandals and the gross mishandling of the sexual abuse crisis seriously damaged the Church. John Paul’s inability to control the Curia was a serious set back to the progress of the Second Vatican Council as the Roman Curia had always seen the Council’s plan for the Pope to share power more laterally with his fellow bishops was a threat to their own power, but the break down in collegiality can not be blamed on the Curia alone. John Paul himself was determined to keep Church authority centralized in Rome. Moreover his paranoia about challenges to central authority made blind loyalty to the papacy the sine qua non qualification for new bishops. The Vatican II Bishops who were not afraid to question everything were replaced throughout the Church by mitered automatons who saw themselves not as heads of the local Churches but as sycophantic lieutenants of the Roman bureaucracy. This was extremely demoralizing to those in the Church who had bought into the vision of the Council.
Finally it must be said that while John Paul was a man of unparalleled piety, piety must not be confused with holiness. This does not mean he was not a good pope—he was, in many ways, a great pope. But sainthood implies holiness and holiness to a “heroic degree.” Few people possess such holiness: which is somewhat the point of canonizing saints. The saints show the rest of us to what we should aspire. They are the “Christian Disciples Hall of Fame.” Just plain every day virtue is not enough here. And while John Paul was perhaps the most pious of recent popes, piety is not the same as spirituality, much less holiness. A good man; a great man—but not an unreservedly great pope nor—in my opinion—a particularly imitable saint. Nonetheless, they are canonized and hopefully their words and deeds while alive will have much to say to future generations of Christians.