Atheists say the darnedest things: on canonising popes and councils

In the past week, Ian Slade of London wrote a letter to the Editor of The Times. He wrote:

In the past, centuries elapsed between Pope Saints – St Pius V, died 1572, and St Pius X, died 1914. Now we are to believe that every pope since 1958 (1939 if one counts Pius XII) was of exalted sanctity. John XXIII, imminent canonisation; Paul VI, imminent beatification; John Paul I, case (sic) opened; John Paul II, imminent canonisation.

As an atheist I cannot comment on the medievalism of miracles or their holiness. However, it does seem odd to laud those under whose guidance the practice of the faith, numbers of clergy and moral authority of the Catholic Church have all but collapsed.

First, let’s get the pedantry out of the way otherwise it will only distract from the primary focus. The first sentence of his second paragraph is both casuistical and unclear (though these often go together).  He avows he will make no comment on the “medievalism of miracles”, but surely this casting of miracles as medieval is itself a clear and highly prejudicial comment? And as to his use of “holiness”, syntactically he seems to use it in reference to “miracles”, but this would be an unusual usage. Normally atheists question the veracity of miracles, not their holiness. In light of his first paragraph, it seems more likely that he was using “holiness” in reference to the popes in question. It would make more sense to me; and it highlights the importance of good grammar and syntax.

However, our primary focus should be on his substantive point: why recognise with such high honour those under whom the Church has declined in such dramatic fashion? It is a question deserving of an answer. Mr Slade has a point.

First, as a point of fact, the Church did not decline under all these popes. Without resorting to statistical analysis, it would be generally accepted that the first half of the 20th century was, by most measures, a time of growth for the Church. Especially in countries in which Catholicism was something of an outsider, such as Britain, America and even Australia, Mass attendance grew steadily, as did vocations to priestly and religious life, missionary activity and charitable outreach. The revival after the Modernist crisis and the emergence of the liturgical movement revealed a vigour in the life of the Church that is often sadly discounted. Some might argue that in some of these areas of vitality were sown the seeds of later malaise, but that is another story.

Secondly, it is not quite so outré to believe that every pope since 1939 (or even earlier) has been of remarkable holiness. They were all men of remarkable gifts and character, selfless in the service of the Church and striking in their freedom from vice. They were good and devout men. They were not all necessarily free from the odd imprudent decision or strategic error; and maybe some addressed some problems without recognizing the greater gravity of others. Yet sanctity is not measured by success according to empirical measures, nor does it attempt to ascribe near perfection to a person, nor does it require that a person never make a mistake.

Holiness is the perfection of human charity (love in action, not love as a sentiment) through cooperation with the grace of Christ without which we cannot become holy. This perfection is articulated in and augmented by devotion to doing God’s will and acknowledging his glory, and by serving our neighbour (cf CCC #2013). The holy person is one whose life is entirely oriented to God, and to God through service of others; that holy person thinks of himself or herself last.

Unlike, say, some of the Renaissance popes, the popes of the last century seem indeed to have been men who clearly lived in devoted service of God and His Church. They may have made some mistakes in matters of prudential government; but they were not selfish or self-aggrandizing men. They were men of God, though with feet of clay.

That said, certainly one could say that from Paul VI’s pontificate the Church has suffered a great decline by most measures, such as Mass attendance, vocations, marriages etc. Paul VI especially reigned over a particularly disastrous period in the Church’s history. He promoted liturgical reforms that went far beyond the mandate of the Vatican Council, reforms ostensibly aimed at allowing the people to be more involved and to make the Mass more easily understood; yet the people’s response has been to abandon Mass attendance en masse. He presided over changes in the life of the Church, especially in religious and priestly life, aimed at a greater openness to the world; yet millions of Catholics, and tens of thousands of priests and religious, embraced the world and left the bosom of the Church. The pontificates of Bl John Paul II and Benedict XVI did much to stem the decline, and in latter years even begin to reverse it, but even they had their own small imprudences.

In all, despite their personal qualities, there seems little mark them out for such honour in the current context. It was a general rule that a cause for canonisation would not be introduced until 50 years has passed since the subject’s death. Yet that rule is increasingly honoured in its breach. With Mother Teresa one could see a compelling argument both for her holiness, and for the witness value her life, and her canonisation, would offer the Church and the world. But one reason for the rule was to allow an authentic cultus to emerge from possible emotive hype. So John Paul II, a man of evident holiness and whose last years were a poignant yet powerful testimony to the role of the Cross in the life of a Christian and to the value of human life in general, has found himself approved for sainthood less than 10 years after his death. With Bl John XXIII another rule has been broken, quite legally, by Pope Francis, namely the requirement for a second miracle.

In fact, all this haste for papal canonisation and beatification is centred on the popes who have presided over the conciliar Church (there is no rush to canonise Pius XII, though he is no less worthy in many ways). Given the point that Mr Slade pointed out in his letter, that these popes have presided over a Church that entered freefall from 1962, one might argue that these popes more than any others should have their causes put in the slow lane rather than the fast one. We are yet to see where the post-conciliar turmoil will finally bring us. We pray that we will finally land on tranquil and fruitful shores. At that point it would seem fitting to consider honouring the popes who brought us to such shores. Until then their reputations are too easily compromised, rightly or wrongly, by association with the general failure of the conciliar reforms. The greater the time since their deaths, the greater the chance of reasoned and reasonable assessment of their sanctity, free from the post-conciliar context that would confuse such an assessment.

However, perhaps this exactly the point. Perhaps in the push to canonise the conciliar popes there is an attempt to associate the compromised conciliar reforms with the good personal reputations of the conciliar popes. If all the conciliar popes are holy, then the conciliar reforms they allowed must be good too. Is it not possible that some might see this as an attempt to counteract the increasingly negative repute of the conciliar reforms with the positive personal repute of the conciliar popes? In other words, does this not allow the whole process to be seen as a conciliar public relations exercise? Cynical, perhaps; unrealistic, not necessarily.

For one, I think the popes of the last century and more are very fine men and Christians, worthy in life and selfless in their service of the Church. I could quite easily accept that they are all in heaven and intercede for us even now before Christ the Lord. However, this haste to canonise them, especially the conciliar popes, is almost unseemly; and the breaking of the 50-year rule, and the requirement of the second miracle in John XXIII’s case, begs the question, why is such corner-cutting haste necessary? What earthly end does it serve?

It is not unreasonable to see in this haste an attempt to bolster the standing of the post-conciliar reforms which, as Mr Slade demonstrated, are seen by so many within and without the Church as having demonstrably failed to achieve their objectives. By canonising the conciliar popes they could by implication canonise the conciliar reforms. This would be a grave disservice both to the pope, by tying their causes to the fortunes of the conciliar reforms; and to the reforms themselves by making it more difficult to assess them in the cool and calm air of dispassionate reason – to question them would be seen as questioning these popes, who after all, would be saints! If this, in fact, the case then the Church’s agony will continue longer, and needlessly. It would be such a shame.

Re-visiting “One does not get down from the cross”

Now that Benedict’s abdication has taken effect, and as the cardinals gather to prepare for the conclave, the murmuring of those critical of Benedict’s decision are getting a little louder. Cardinal Pell voiced the fears of many that an abdication might place future popes under unprecedented pressure to abdicate in the face of loud secular or even curial opposition. There is more from the rumour mill that the cardinals are resolving to insist that the new pope undertake never to resign. Cardinal Dziwisz’s comments on Bl John Paul II’s reigning till death even when illness had made him a mere shell of the man he had been – “One does not come down from the Cross” – have been mischievously construed by the press as an attack on Benedict.

pope-johnpaul_

Benedict XVI seems himself to have been conscious of Dziwisz’s words and of Bl John Paul II’s example. In his final audience last Wednesday he said,

 I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences, and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord.

Bl John Paul II was a unique man, and Benedict XVI knows this better than anyone else. Benedict knows he cannot be another JP II. Benedict XVI is himself a unique man. He recognizes his own gifts and weaknesses and acts accordingly. Part of the reason why JP II was able to carry the Church and the world with him in those anguished last years if his pontificate was that he had been pope for the best part of a generation. His extrovert, warm personality and his gift for commanding the world stage as a personality to be reckoned with, meant that we could only feel sympathy for him as he battled on valiantly. Our sympathy was not dimmed by the knowledge of many of us that aspects of the governance of the Church were suffering even as JP II gave wonderful witness of the value of human life and human suffering as a sharing in the Cross of Christ.

What Benedict is teaching us is that there are many ways of sharing the Cross of Christ, of keeping it at the centre of our Christian lives. We are called to carry the Cross at some stage(s) of our lives. JP II felt himself to be called to be on the Cross himself, as it were. But not all of us are called to that way of anchoring the Cross in our lives. JP II’s witness was a very particular and special identification with Christ.

Benedict proposes another rich identification we can make with regard to the Cross. He sees his life now not as being on the Cross with Christ, but standing by the Cross, at the feet of Christ. In this he seems to identify with Mary and the Beloved Disciple. who stood by the Cross after most had abandoned him.

 When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. John 19:26-27

maryjesjohn

Here one fruit of the Cross is highlighted: from the Cross Christ gives us a home, with his mother, a motherhood that is exercised by the Church. Benedict’s teaching to us is that by being in the Church we have begun to make the Cross the cornerstone (to mix images) of our lives. Benedict feels himself too old and unfit to the immense task of guiding the Church in such demanding times, which is itself a sharing in the Cross. Instead he is embracing the Cross in a more contemplative, less active way, standing by it and gazing upon it, attentive to its message.

pope-benedict-xvi--kneels-in-front-of-a-cross-as-he-leads-the

Benedict XVI has chosen to be cloistered with the Cross for the rest of his days. He reminds us that whether we feel ourselves to be in the Cross with Christ, or simply standing in its shadow, always the Cross is central to the life of a Christian. In fact, without the Cross there is no Christianity, and there is no Church. We are all called to shoulder the Cross, like Simon of Cyrene, at some stage of our lives. We are also all called to keep our gaze firmly fixed on the Cross, as we stand in its shadow.

To be in the Church is to abide in the shadow of the Cross. Benedict XVI has not strength enough now to carry the Cross as he formerly did. It is enough for him to remain in its shadow, his eyes undistractedly fixed on the Cross in the cloister of Golgotha. That too is a gift to the Church. Maybe, just maybe, as one has suggested to me, Benedict’s example might inspire more young men and women to embrace the contemplation of the Cross in the cloisters of the Church’s monasteries. What rich fruit that would be indeed.

 

Of Popes and Terrorists

It has been an amazing 24 hours. The late Pope John Paul II was beatified in Rome by his successor and close collaborator Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. Beatification, or solemn declaration by the Pope in the name of the Church of a person as “Blessed”, is the last stage before canonisation as a saint. There had been some criticism of what was portrayed as the unseemly haste with which the good pope’s cause for sainthood was pursued. Yet who cannot remember the cries of “Santo subito!” that arose from the massed crowds at Blessed John Paul’s funeral?

It should be remembered of course that, until the papacy took charge of canonizations in medieval times, canonizations had been by such acclamation as was heard at the blessed pope’s funeral. Even though the process for beatification and canonisation is now so formal and rigorous, nevertheless the opinion of the faithful (the sensus fidelium in properly theological terms) is integral, indeed essential to the whole process. The absence of a cultus or following for a person proposed for canonisation imperils his or her cause for sainthood. Since beatification and canonisation are a response to the widespread recognition of exemplary sanctity in a person, the lack of a following implies a lack of such recognition. In that case the process would be futile. Or to look at it from another angle, beatification and canonisation involve not only a recognition that a person is with God, but also involve a proposition to the Church that such a person has qualities that reflect to a high degree fidelity to Christ and the life of holiness, and that this person has lived a life, or in the case of martyrs died a death, worthy of emulation by Christians. A strong following for a person proposed for sainthood implies that the people of God already recognises in that person these qualities, and this empowers and encourages the Church to proceed with that person’s cause. That more than 1 million people came to Rome itself to witness and affirm the beatification is testimony enough to the people’s recognition of sanctity in him.

Of course in Pope John Paul we see both a life and a death worthy of emulation. He suffered under Nazism and Communism, and from that experience learnt to treasure the gospel truths of hope and mercy, which blossomed in his papacy. It is no coincidence that Church saw fit to beatify him on Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast Blessed John Paul II instituted and a devotion to which he was passionately committed. By preaching the gospel of hope in season and out, he was instrumental in the downfall of communism and in restoring some semblance of order to the Church after the turmoil of the 70s. That he did not solve or address every problem can hardly be held against him: not every battle can be fought by one man. And moreover, that he made some mistakes in matters of policy is likewise evidence only of his frail humanity.

The blessed pope’s last years were poignant to say the least. As his body was increasingly oppressed by Parkinson’s disease, the lifelight slowly ebbed from his body. But not from his spirit, nor his soul. His courageous perseverance to the end in his papal ministry were to the Church and to the world an icon of the redemptive value of suffering rightly accepted in faith, and also of the value of all human life, even when overwhelmed by illness and infirmity.

As we honoured one man’s death yesterday, another man died, and who is to say the two events are not related in ways unseen by us. Crowds rejoiced at this man’s death, but not as for Blessed John Paul II. Osama bin Laden, the arch-terrorist, was killed by US special forces at his mansion-hideout in Pakistan. It is stirring news. Though he never faced a court, it has to be said that the evidence against him appeared overwhelming. From his own lips we heard words of hate and of violence. We may indeed thank God on hearing of his death, but we need to qualify our thanks.

That his death might lead to greater peace in the world is something for which we should indeed give thanks. But for his death per se, I am not so sure we should be dancing for joy. If God does not desire the death of the wicked but that he should repent and live (Ezekiel 33:11), then perhaps that should be our approach too. Bin Laden’s death has in it the stuff of tragedy, for by any measure we could see in him one of the lost. Who knows but he may have repented in his last seconds? Who knows what experience in his life might have made him the practitioner of evil he became?

So we do well to pray that the Lord might have mercy on bin Laden. If we cannot do it for his sake, then we should do it for our own sake. When we pray for mercy on others, we are also building up our own case before the Lord that he might have mercy on us when we come finally before him. We have it from the Lord himself: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2) St James takes up the same topic, when he writes that “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)

Both our Lord and St James speak in unconditional terms. Lest we be tempted to qualify these teachings by suggesting that there might be some who could be exempt from our mercy, we might ask ourselves where God will actually draw the line. Can we be certain that the line is drawn with bin Laden on the wrong side of it? Can we be certain that the line is drawn with us on the right side of it? What we do know is that in looking at the Cross we see that,

while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

We can be thankful bin Laden’s evil deeds are at an end; we should pray that those of his followers cease rapidly in the wake of his death; and we should pray that the Lord might have mercy on bin Laden, if only that he might have mercy on us.

To end, a story that seems fitting for both topics above. It is a story from Scott Hahn which has been providentially reproduced recently on the Roma Locuta Est blog. It says much about Blessed John Paul II, and much about the power of mercy.

A priest friend of Scott Hahn’s had returned from Rome and told Mr. Hahn this story. The priest was on his way to a private audience with the Pope but was running early. He thus decided to stop in a church to pray before his meeting.

On the steps of the church were a number of beggars, something fairly common in Rome. As he approached the church, the priest thought that he recognized one of the beggars. After entering the sanctuary he knelt down to pray, whereupon he remembered how he knew the man. The priest immediately rushed out and approached the familiar beggar exclaiming, “I know you. Didn’t we go to seminary together?”
The man gave a humble affirmative.

“So you are a priest then?” he said to the beggar.

The man replied, “Not anymore. I fell off the deep end. Leave me alone.”

The priest mindful of his approaching appointment with the Holy Father, said nothing more than, “I’ll pray for you.” The familiar man replied, “A lot of good that will do.”

With that, the priest left the man on the steps and departed for his meeting. These sorts of meetings with the Pope are typically very formal. There are any number of people who have been granted a private audience at the same time, and when the Holy Father makes his way around to you, his secretary hands him a blessed rosary, and he in turn hands it to you. At this point, one would probably kiss the Pope’s ring and say something heartfelt, yet almost generic, such as asking him to pray for you, telling him you are praying for him, or thanking him for his service to the Church. However, when Pope John Paul II approached, the priest couldn’t help himself and blurted out, “Please pray for my friend.” Not only this, but the priest continued to blurt out the entire story. The Holy Father, looking concerned, assured the priest that he would pray for his friend.

Later that day, the priest received a letter from the Vatican. Excited and curious, he rushed with the letter back to the church where he last saw his classmate. Only a few beggars were left, and as luck (or grace) would have it, his friend was among the few. He approached the man and said, “I have been to see the Pope, and he said he would pray for you as well.” The man listened.

“There’s more. He has invited you and me to his private residence for dinner.”

“Impossible,” said the man, “Look at me. I am a mess. I haven’t showered in God knows how long, and my clothes …”

Sensing the gravity of the situation (and understanding that this man was his admission ticket to have dinner with the Pope), the priest said, “I have a hotel room across the street where you can shower and shave, and I have clothes that will fit you.”

By the grace of God, the man agreed, and so the two of them were off to have dinner with Pope John Paul II. The hospitality was wondrous. Near the close of dinner, just before dessert, the Holy Father motioned to the priest who didn’t understand what the Pope was trying to say. Finally, the secretary explained, “He wants us to leave,” at which point the priest and the secretary left the Holy Father alone with the beggar.

After fifteen minutes, the man emerged from the room in tears. “What happened in there?” asked the priest.

The most remarkable and unexpected reply came. “He asked me to hear his confession,” choked the beggar.

After regaining composure, the man continued, “I told him, ‘Your Holiness, look at me. I am a beggar. I am not a priest.’ The Pope looked at me and said, ‘My son, once a priest always a priest, and who among us is not a beggar. I too come before the Lord as a beggar asking for forgiveness of my sins.’ I told him I was not in good standing with the Church, and he assured me that as the Bishop of Rome he could reinstate me then and there.”

The man then relayed that it had been so long since he had heard a confession that the Pope had to help him through the words of absolution. The priest asked, “But you were in there for fifteen minutes. Surely the Pope’s confession did not last that long.”

“No,” said his friend, “But after I heard his confession, I asked him to hear mine.”

Blessed John Paul II – pray for us.