A wry joke was making the rounds in 1978. It went something like this: “Have you heard how the Catholics are electing Popes these days? They’re going to the polls!” The reference, of course, was to the then-recent election of the Pole Karol Wojtyla as the new Pope, elected after the untimely death of Pope John Paul I, who died after a pontificate of only 33 days. It would now seem that the Catholics are canonizing saints in the same way: going to the Poles. I refer to the fast-tracking of the canonization of Pope John Paul II, following his death after a long pontificate of 27 years. As Wikipedia reports, “Inspired by calls of “Santo Subito!” (“Saint Immediately!”) from the crowds gathered during the funeral, Pope Benedict XVI began the beatification process for his predecessor, bypassing the normal restriction that five years must pass after a person’s death before the beatification process can begin.” Pope John Paul II (make that “the Blessed John Paul II”) was beatified this year, 2011. Sainthood, it is expected, will follow soon.
This rush to embrace and canonize should give us pause, for in this rush certain questions seem to be overlooked, not the least of which is the question of how much the former Pope knew about the sexual scandals now plaguing the Catholic Church and absorbing the attention of his successor, who has been left, as it were, holding the papal bag. It strikes me as unlikely that in a church as centralized as the Roman Catholic Church, where all roads, bureaucratic and otherwise, lead to Rome, that Pope John Paul knew nothing of these matters. It is now known that the practice of the Roman Catholic Church over the past many decades has been to shuffle offending clerics off to other parishes and dioceses when the offence starts to become apparent. This practice seems to have been systemic (and, in fairness, not confined to Roman Catholic circles. Orthodox have no cause for smugness). We have, I suggest, the following options regarding the question of how much Pope John Paul knew: either he knew what was going on (which compromises his integrity), or did not know what his own appointed men were doing (which compromises his competence, since it was his job to know). Neither option looks good on the proposed resume of a saint, which is why the question is not often raised by those crying “Santo Subito!”
Nothing I can write by way of disclaimer is likely to impress those fans of the Blessed John Paul, who will possibly accuse me of knee-jerk anti-Catholicism. I can only deny charges of being anti-catholic and leave the matter with God and with those who know me personally. My criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church do not mean I am anti-Catholic. I generally reserve my frank criticism for my friends. It can be noted that I make no such frank criticisms of organizations for which I feel no real friendship or affection. Accordingly I have no word of criticism about the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists or the United Church of Canada. As St. Paul said, “What I have to do with judging outsiders?” (1 Cor. 5:12)
I think that the rush to embrace and canonize is worth reflecting upon because it reveals something in contemporary culture—namely, the popularity of the cult of personality. John Paul was a very nice Pope, of course—but then so were his predecessors, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul I, this last of whom died during the honeymoon period of his pontificate, thereby tugging at the heartstrings sufficiently that John Paul II took his name. Yet none of these men are up for canonization, much less fast-tracked canonization. Admittedly, John Paul II has had an unprecedentedly busy pontificate, visiting 129 countries and logging more than 1.1 million kilometres. In 1995 he served Mass before an estimated crowd of between five and seven million people in the Philippines for World Youth Day, which was considered to be the biggest single gathering in the history of the Church. He has kissed a lot of ground when emerging from airplanes, and blessed a lot of babies. Impressive, certainly. But sufficient cause for canonization? What’s the deal?
The deal, I suggest, is that our modern culture, aided by world-wide television and Facebook, feeds off personality. We need the image, we want to adore. (Successful rock stars know this.) Whether it’s Bono pontificating (on Africa these days, I think) or a church cleric pontificating, we want a pontiff to cheer. This should give us pause, because it means that, insofar as we feed off image and personality, we focus on style, not substance. This is not to deny that there is much substance to John Paul II, who wrote 14 papal encyclicals, but I suggest that these scholarly and pastoral encyclicals are not the engine driving the enthusiasm of those pushing for canonization. Our culture remains bound to the cult of personality. In the case of John Paul II, this bondage may well prove relatively harmless. What’s another saint in the Catholic Church, more or less? But when the Antichrist comes, our addiction to image may have more dangerous consequences.