When John Paul II died in 2005, it was an event of such magnitude that Internet commentators took to asking Where Were You? when he died. (Global changes to my colleague Jimmy Akin’s blog in the years since this post was first published have incorrectly attributed that post to me; it was really the work of Jimmy’s friend and co-blogger Tim Jones.) In my case, I learned of his death in conjunction with someone else’s passing on that very day: my father.
I had just called a friend to inform her that my father had died about a half-hour previously after a long illness. She exclaimed, “He and the Pope together?” That’s when I found out that John Paul had died. Later, I would learn that my dad had preceded the Pope by about twenty minutes.
In the months before my father’s death from an illness we had known for some time would be terminal, I found myself thinking it would be lovely that—when the time came—he might pass into eternity on a Carmelite feast day. I have an interest in Carmelite spirituality, a love for St. Therese of Lisieux, and my mother passed away this past December on the feast of St. John of the Cross. It did not look likely, though, since I could think of no upcoming Carmelite feasts and it appeared that my father would die soon.
Unsurprisingly, I underestimated God. With the passing of John Paul II, God created a Carmelite feast for the day of my dad’s birth into eternity. John Paul II was a third-order Carmelite who wrote a doctoral thesis on the spirituality of St. John of the Cross. It is a great grace and comfort that both of my fathers, natural and spiritual, entered the next life together.
(Again, global changes misattributed this post to someone else. It was a post I’d written for Jimmy’s blog.)
Nota bene: I have since learned that although John Paul II is widely believed to have been a secular Carmelite—the Discalced Carmelites no longer use the term “third order” for their lay members—there is no documentation of that fact. Given the Carmelites’ historical embarrassment over insisting incorrectly for many centuries that they were directly founded by the prophet Elijah, it is unlikely that the Discalced Carmelites will formally recognize John Paul II to have been a member of their secular order until irrefutable evidence is found. And that may be impossible, given the losses of existing records and necessary lack of record-keeping during the Nazi and Communist eras in Poland.
The crowds that chanted “Santo subito!” (Italian, “Saint now!”) on the day of John Paul II’s funeral on April 8, 2005—the day before my own father’s funeral—have been heard and heeded. Pope Francis has approved a second miracle attributed to John Paul’s intercession, clearing the way for his canonization later this year. But that announcement had been expected for quite some time. The real shocker was Pope Francis’s authorization of a second canonization:
Pope Francis on Friday cleared two of the 20th century’s most influential popes to become saints, approving a miracle needed to canonize Pope John Paul II and waiving Vatican rules to honor Pope John XXIII.
It was a remarkable show of papal authority and confirmed Francis’s willingness to bend church tradition when it comes to things he cares deeply about. Both popes are also closely identified with the Second Vatican Council, the 1962–65 meetings that brought the Catholic Church into modern times, an indication that Francis clearly wants to make a statement about the council’s role in shaping the church today.
Francis approved a decree that a Costa Rican woman’s inexplicable cure from a deadly brain aneurism was the “miracle” needed to canonize John Paul. More significantly, he decided that John XXIII, who convened Vatican II, could be declared a saint even without a second miracle attributed to his intercession. The Vatican said Francis had the power to dispense with such requirements and could proceed with only one confirmed miracle to John’s name.
When I heard the news of John XXIII’s impending canonization, I smiled, because I assumed that this was a move that would anger Catholics in both the Traditionalist and liberal camps for the exact same reason: It was done in disregard of established protocol (a Traditionalist obsession) as an exercise of papal authority (a liberal bugbear). And, predictable as sunrise, there were those on the fringes of the Traditionalist camp who were out of the gate quickly to complain. (Novus Ordo Watch is a site of sedevacantism, a position outside the “mainstream” of Catholic Traditionalism; all the same, it can be considered at the extreme right edge of the Traditionalist spectrum.)
What was surprising is that I have yet to see any complaints from liberal Catholics over Pope Francis’s raw exercise of papal authority in the decision to canonize John XXIII. To the extent that complaints have arisen from that camp, the problem has been with the presumed Rush To Judgment in canonizing John Paul II:
Yet while he inspired the young, it must also be acknowledged that he did not protect them, and for decades ignored evidence of the clerical sexual abuse that devastated thousands of lives, and did real and lasting damage to the church he loved so much.
His reasoning is not a mystery: When the communists in his home country wanted to discredit someone, they smeared him as a pedophile, which is why John Paul disbelieved so much for so long, and with such terrible consequences.
Still, every saint has a story to tell—sending a specific message with each one is very much the point—and John Paul’s is now impossible to separate from the scandals.
In other words, each side, Traditionalist and liberal alike, are happy when a decision is made for something they like, no matter the means used to achieve it. Those who admire John XXIII have no problem that he will be elevated to the altars based on papal pronouncement, while those who dislike him will cling stubbornly to protocols that can be dispensed on the authority of those they profess to believe can do so. Those dissatisfied with John Paul II might never accept the explanation that saints are not perfect, just holy; while those who admire him unreservedly might wish the canonization process had been completed even sooner.
Perhaps the bottom line to all of these questions and concerns about the sanctity of John XXIII and John Paul II, and what it means to be a faithful Christian in the modern world, can be found in Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (Latin, “Light of Faith”), released the same day as the announcements of the upcoming canonizations. Pope Francis states:
In God’s gift of faith, a supernatural infused virtue, we realize that a great love has been offered us, a good word has been spoken to us, and that when we welcome that word, Jesus Christ the Word made flesh, the Holy Spirit transforms us, lights up our way to the future, and enables us joyfully to advance along that way on wings of hope. Thus wonderfully interwoven, faith, hope, and charity are the driving force of the Christian life as it advances towards full communion with God (LF 7).