The record speed of Pope John Paul II’s beatification has raised questions, even from some supporters, about whether the Vatican should first answer lingering concerns about the flaws of his papacy.
John Paul’s holiness and accomplishments are not much in dispute: The second-longest living Pope helped bring down communism, steered the Catholic Church through the tumultuous decades after the Second Vatican Council, and seemingly made being Catholic hip for a generation of young faithful who flocked to his Masses around the globe.
Those attributes and more are being highlighted in the runup to the May 1 beatification, which organisers estimate will lure as many as a million pilgrims to Rome.
It is the last formal step before being canonised as a saint. A prayer vigil on the Circus Maximus, an all-night prayer session in central Rome churches and the beatification Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI top the agenda for the three-day event.
Perhaps it is inevitable that the speed of the process has raised questions about whether the Vatican is rushing to judgement and merely ceding to the calls for “Santo Subito!” or “Sainthood Immediately!” that erupted during his 2005 funeral Mass.
Some point out many of the crimes and cover-ups of the clerical sex abuse scandal occurred during his 27-year watch – a scandal that has convulsed the Church for the past decade and done seemingly irreparable harm to the faith in Ireland, in particular.
Some conservatives and traditionalists accuse John Paul of failing to stem the decline of Catholicism in the West by allowing, and in some cases encouraging, certain liturgical abuses they say has contributed to the waning of the faith. They point to dancing during papal Masses, an interfaith peace prayer in Assisi that the Pope organised and other Vatican II-inspired liturgical trends in churches around the world.
And many Vatican watchers – priests and laymen alike – point to the scandal of the Legionaries of Christ as perhaps the greatest failure. The Pope held up the wealthy, conservative religious order as a model of orthodoxy. Yet for years, he and his advisers actively or passively ignored allegations that its founder was a paedophile who created a cult-like movement so secretive and oppressive that his crimes went unchecked for decades.
Benedict has spent much of his first six years as Pope trying to undo the damage from such failures, prompting suggestions that it might have been wiser to wait longer before declaring that John Paul had lived a life of “heroic” Christian virtue, a key requirement for beatification.
Church historian Michael Walsh recently questioned whether it was “necessary or fitting” to beatify John Paul so soon after his death, noting that most of the people involved in the process – Benedict included – owe their jobs in some way to the late pontiff and cannot be expected to be impartial.
It was Benedict himself who dispensed with the typical five-year waiting period and allowed the beatification process to begin just weeks after John Paul’s death on April 2, 2005. And it was Benedict who signed off on the decree attesting to John Paul’s heroic virtues and then confirmed that a miracle occurred thanks to his intercession.
Cardinal Angelo Amato, who runs the Vatican’s saint-making office, told a recent conference that the case for John Paul’s beatification was as thorough as any, and especially rigorous because he was a pope and would face the greatest scrutiny.
While John Paul’s case was on a preferential track - "he didn’t have to wait on the supermarket queue," Cardinal Amato quipped - no shortcuts were taken in the investigation of his life and virtues, a study that produced volumes of analysis and testimony from admirers and detractors alike.
Asked about how the sex abuse scandal had affected the pope’s legacy and beatification cause, Cardinal Amato said: “Sin exists. Our sins exist. But this doesn’t impede the holiness of others.”
John Paul’s long-time spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, has argued that beatification is not so much a historic judgment about how John Paul administered the church but rather an assessment of whether he lived a saintly life of Christian virtue. And on that score, he said, there was no doubt.
Others say it’s impossible to separate the man from mandate, and that any investigation of John Paul’s personal virtues must also include a frank assessment of his papacy. A small, tradition-minded US publication “The Remnant” has issued a statement expressing reservations about the beatification because of the sex abuse scandal, the Legion debacle and concerns about the liturgy under John Paul. To date, some 1,500 people have signed support.
“When the candidate for beatification is a pope – the Holy Father of the universal church – the question is not simply his personal piety and holiness but also his care of the vast household of the faith that God has entrusted to him,” the petition reads.
Even John Paul’s biographer, George Weigel, says the Vatican would do well to make public how it resolved the questions about the Legion in its investigation for the beatification. Maciel was eventually sanctioned by the Vatican a year after Benedict became pope, a decade after the first allegations reached the Vatican that Maciel had molested young seminarians.
The beatification dossier is secret, and there are no indications the Vatican plans to open it to public scrutiny.
Weigel argued in The Tablet that making public the Vatican’s rejection of allegations that John Paul was complicit in Maciel’s misdeeds “would help clear the air” prior to the May 1 beatification.
Nevertheless, Weigel has no doubts about the worthiness of the cause or its timing.
In his recent sequel biography of John Paul “The End and the Beginning,” Weigel wrote that it will take centuries to understand the full measure of John Paul’s accomplishments and failures.
“Yet the universal outpouring of sympathy and gratitude at his death suggested that large parts of the world had already rendered a verdict: this was a great man and a great pope, whose greatness came from his ability to summon men and women to a nobler vision of their own possibilities, under the grace of God.”