The beatification of Pope John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday should have been a cause for universal rejoicing within the Catholic Church. If you spent any time over the past few weeks reading various liberal and traditionalist publications that regard themselves as Catholic, however, you know that some people viewed May 1, 2011, as the greatest betrayal of Christ and His mission since Judas sought an audience with the chief priests and elders. Of course, the two wings who each see themselves as the true voice of the faithful had entirely different reasons for decrying the Church's decision to raise John Paul II to the ranks of the blessed. But ecclesiastical politics, perhaps even more than its secular counterpart, makes for strange bedfellows.
Unlike some of my friends, I haven't been too concerned about the voices of dissent, left or right. The Church has survived far greater threats than the chirping sectaries of the blogosphere, and Someone once assured us that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. Oddly enough, He said that to Saint Peter, not all that long before the first pope would deny him three times. I've always assumed that, even knowing how the story would end, Saint Peter spent the rest of his life regretting that act, and, in the kind of irony that is rarely found outside of the divine economy of salvation, the suffering occasioned by that regret united him more fully to the Man Whom he had betrayed. Only through the acceptance of our personal suffering—both that which is visited upon us through no fault of our own and, perhaps even more importantly, that which we bring on ourselves—can we truly unite ourselves to the suffering of Christ, dying to self and rising in Him.
Pope Benedict XVI, following Saint Paul and Saint Thomas Aquinas, has eloquently explored this mystery that lies at the heart of the Christian life, while Pope John Paul II both understood it implicitly and lived it, especially in the final years of his life when, as Pope Benedict said in his homily at the Beatification Mass, "the Lord gradually stripped him of everything." But all too many of those who opposed the beatification of Pope John Paul II, whether they style themselves liberal or progressive Catholics or traditionalist ones, seem to regard suffering with the same disdain as the revolutionaries of the modern world do. Suffering, for them, is not something to be borne patiently, much less something to be regarded as a gift that works toward our salvation. It is, rather, something to be despised, to be trampled down and overcome, through utopian political and economic reform (for those on the left) or restoration of an imaginary golden age of the Church (for the traditionalist right). In the liberal or progressive Catholic who has self-consciously embraced modernism, this attitude is not surprising; in the traditionalist, it serves as a reminder that we all too often become that which we most despise.
I was 10 years old when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope, and just shy of 37 when his earthly pilgrimage ended. A half-Pole, I remember a vague pride at his election that paled in comparison with my grandmother's love for the man. I saw relatives and friends who had fallen away from the Church return under his influence, and met others who became Catholic, at least in part, because they saw in him a man who, as Pope Benedict said, struggled to live "the vocation of every priest and bishop to become completely one with Jesus." For me, that was never more clear than when he forgave the man who attempted to assassinate him and when he spoke with the voice of absolute moral clarity in 1990 against the Gulf War.
The latter action diminished him in the eyes of some of his Catholic admirers in the United States, who, in blithely dismissing his opposition to the war, proved themselves more "conservative" (read: "Republican") than Catholic. But by the mid-1990's, I, for different reasons, had found myself less enamored of John Paul II's pontificate (if not of the man personally). The mass gatherings that had seemed so full of joy and hope and the promise of renewal in the early years of his pontificate now seemed to me to be increasingly tired variations on the same theme (though I doubt that they ever seemed so to those who took part in them). The incremental changes he made in the hierarchy in the United States were too slow for my taste, and too many passages in his encyclicals reflected the style of the philosopher rather than the pastor. In those regards, I find myself much more at home today with Pope Benedict than I ever did with John Paul.
Shortly after the turn of the millennium, however, as it became clear that his earthly life was drawing to a close, I developed a renewed appreciation for John Paul II. His travels lessened, then ended; and the voice of the pastor returned as he reminded the world of the Catholic teaching on life: on abortion, on euthanasia, on a new war in Iraq. As his strength faded and others began to read his words for him at public gatherings, I saw in his eyes not the twinkle of the early years of his pontificate but the happy sadness of the suffering servant who, with Saint Paul, made up in himself "those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ . . . for his body, which is the church" (Colossians 1:24).
The words of his dear friend Joseph Ratzinger, from the time of John Paul's funeral to his Beatification Mass, have made it clear that what I saw, and what anyone else who cared to see did see, was very real. Whatever the shortcomings of John Paul II's reign—and there were many—what will remain with me and with millions of others is his example of self-sacrifice and humble acceptance of suffering. I have never borne suffering well—just ask my wife what I am like when I have a cold—and my pride threatens constantly to destroy what little spiritual progress I may occasionally make.
Now, however, the intellectual conviction that faith entails suffering and requires humility has for me a very human face. The happy sadness of the eyes of Blessed Pope John Paul II, in those final months and weeks and days of his earthly life, say more to me than all of his encyclicals and homilies and other writings combined. Here in this vale of tears, they looked beyond to that world where every tear will be wiped away, where the sufferings that we daily unite to the sufferings of Christ, in faith and hope and love, will cease, when we see the object of our faith and hope and love face to face.
As John Paul II's successor, himself the successor of Peter, declared in his homily, "He gave us the strength to believe in Christ, because Christ is Redemptor hominis, the Redeemer of man." If for no other reason than that, the beatification of Pope John Paul II should be a cause for universal rejoicing within the Catholic Church.
(John Paul II on January 13, 2005. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
More on Pope John Paul II:
- Vatican Announces Beatification of Pope John Paul II (with pictures of Pope John Paul II)
- Pope Benedict's Homily at the Beatification of Pope John Paul II (with pictures from the Beatification Mass)
- Share Your Story: My Memories of Pope John Paul II
- Share Your Thoughts on the Beatification of Pope John Paul II