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False contrasts between the two new saints

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 28, 2014

How soon they forget. At the funeral of Pope John Paul II, when hundreds of people in St. Peter’s Square began shouting, “Santo subito!,” I didn’t hear dissenting voices. Certainly the huge crowds in Rome testified to the love that the Catholic faithful bore for him. But his influence was not confined to the Church. Even secular commentators recognized that the Polish Pontiff had lived a heroic life.

Yet in the days leading up to his canonization, did you detect the undercurrent of criticism directed at the soon-to-be St. John Paul II? There was criticism of his handling of the sex-abuse scandal, of course, but also broader criticism about the overall direction of his pontificate. Some analysts, including Catholic analysts, almost suggested that Pope Francis had decided to canonize John XXIII simultaneously in order to make the canonization of John Paul II more palatable—as if by raising “good Pope John” to the altars he would be deflecting attention from an unpopular decision to canonize John Paul II.

How preposterous! In the history of the human race there may never have been a man more widely admired by his contemporaries than St. John Paul II; there is surely no man whose death so universally mourned. Those people shouting “Santo subito!” were voicing a sentiment shared by millions all around the world.

So why, less than a decade later, is there this suggestion that John XXIII was a popular choice for canonization, and John Paul II less so? I attribute the absurdity to media analysts looking for a story. Dozens of outlets, in their previews for the canonization ceremony, offering a similar, simplistic line: Pope John XXIII had called the Second Vatican Council, throwing open the doors of the Church, and Pope John Paul II had slammed them shut.

This, too, is preposterous. Then-Archbishop Wojtyla was an active and influential participant in the discussions of Vatican II, who dedicated his episcopate to the implementation of the Council’s teachings. Do you remember that he, like his immediate predecessor, took the names “John” and “Paul” to honor the two Popes of the Council?

The false contrast between the two newly canonized saints is related, I think, to the equally false contrast between Pope Francis and Pope-emeritus Benedict. Conflicts make good headlines. So pundits invent differences between the “liberal” Pope and the “conservative” Pope, between the “reformer” and the “reactionary.”

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: meegan2136289 - Apr. 30, 2014 10:10 AM ET USA

    Not sure what to think. That this commentary was written by Phil Lawler, who has never made excuses for the hierarchy vis-a-vis the sex crimes, is somewhat reassuring. But I feel much the same as koinonia. I'm a faithful Catholic, and recognize much greatness in John Paul's legacy, but feel a bit unsettled by his canonization, and even more so that so many of my fellow Catholics seem to excuse his inaction on the crimes. Honestly, I'd like to hear more of Phil's take on this issue.

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Apr. 28, 2014 6:00 PM ET USA

    John XXIII died over 50 years ago; so, one can't say there was a mad rush to raise him to the Altars. Also, if one thinks there was unbridled haste to canonize John Paul II, then blame it on God, since He worked TWO certified miracles in the past 9 years at JP II's intercession. The fact is Phil is totally right about the media, and some victims of priest abuse (e.g. SNAP) have resolved to make a life out of hating JP II as others have of made one out of hating Pius XII. I pity them.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 28, 2014 4:29 PM ET USA

    There is much today that is discordant. These comments make some clarifications. Nonetheless, the real issue is the urgency to canonize these popes so quickly. There is still a great deal of hurt. Many victims of priestly abuse are still alive. There continue to be nagging questions. A decent argument for insensitivity can be made less than a decade out from the death of Pope JP II. Long after our deaths these canonizations will be scrutinized without the euphoria of the dearly departed.

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