Saturday, April 26, 2014


I have been hearing tremendous praises for the upcoming canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.  But I have also been hearing reservations from some quarters on a couple of counts:  first, the waiving of a 2nd miracle in the case of John XXIII; and second, remembering some dubious judgments on the part of John Paul II. 

For myself, I am not convinced that any kind of miraculous interventions should be the primary criterion for sainthood, though I fully understand the historical context that underlies it.  Who honestly thinks, for example, that we should have to wait for miracles for the formal canonization of Mother Teresa?  What I think far more important is an evaluation of the overall life of the person.  Was it marked by “heroic sanctity”?  Is it a life worth being held up as a model of holiness?  Here is the real acid test. 

Was John XXIII a wonderful man and truly “Good Pope John”?  I think so, without a doubt, including considering his record in rescuing Jews during World War II and his role, behind the scenes, in helping de-fuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.

When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, the crowds immediately started chanting Santo subito! [“Sainthood immediately” is one way to translate it].  He was recognized for his holiness of life, especially in the last years, with the sufferings he endured with the Parkinson’s, and for his evangelical desire to bring Jesus Christ to the world.  The joke was that the difference between Pope John Paul II and God is that God is everywhere; John Paul has been everywhere.

Yet there were flaws of judgment in Pope John Paul (I choose this phrase deliberately).  His staunch opposition to Marxism made him unfeeling toward the plight of the poor in Central America and the attempts by Catholic clergy to defend their rights and lives.  This was especially true in the way Archbishop Oscar Romero was treated—in a dismissive, almost unfeeling, way—by the Vatican.  Again, the pope’s support of Msgr Maciel Degollado as exemplary came back badly (though after John Paul’s death) when the truth about his scandalous lifestyle finally was made public.  It is hard to believe that the Holy Father was not at least told some of the truths about the founder of the Legionnaires of Christ; if so, clearly he chose not to believe them.  He saw the Legion (and Opus Dei) as the true spirit of the Jesuits, in whose loyalty he had lost confidence.

“Flaws of judgment,” I said.  It marks for me the distinction between holiness and perfection, between being devoted to and attached to God and being always correct.  The former is the criterion for sainthood, not the latter.  If you like, it is a parallel to the distinction between a pope’s formal ex cathedra infallible proclamations on the one hand and his personal theological perspectives on the other—these last being important but not definitive and final.  Outside of his exercise of the extraordinary infallible magisterium, a pope can indeed make a mistake.

Consider that only 2 other popes in the last 500 years have been canonized:  Pius V and Pius X.  Both were personally holy and both found themselves in the See of Peter in times of crisis:   finishing the Council of Trent and implementing its reforms for Pius V, and in the headlong series of political events that triggered World War I for Pius X.  Both also were capable of making what I would call errors of judgment.  For Pius V, expulsion of the Jews from most areas of the Papal States (and their being confined to ghettos in Ancona and Rome), and the excommunication of Elizabeth I of England, were at the very least ill-advised.  In the case of Pius X, in his desire to quash “Modernism,” he demanded, for example, the exclusion from teaching positions of anyone showing “a love of novelty in history, archeology, or biblical exegesis, and authorized “Vigilance Councils” for all dioceses to report on those suspected of the heresy.  This amounted to a sort of “secret police” structure.  [For a fuller discussion, see John W O’Malley, A History of the Popes]

Were they personally holy and saintly?  Did they also do great good for the Church?  Were they utterly convinced their actions were good and necessary?  Yes, to all three questions.  And so we honor them.  I’m not aware of too many parishes called “St Pius V,” but here in the Mobile Archdiocese we have St Pius X. 
Errors in judgment show the humanity of the Church—the “gory glory of the Body of Christ,” as one priest once expressed it.  Through it all, the love of God in Jesus Christ is reflected.  And so we celebrate saints:  men and women in love with God—even when they are not perfect as God is.

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