Holy See announces canonisation of Blessed John Paul II

Holy See announces canonisation of Blessed John Paul II

Peter Westmore

Just eight years after the death of Blessed John Paul II in 2005, the Holy See has announced that he will be canonised late this year, becoming Saint John Paul II.

The announcement followed the advice from an expert medical team that there was no medical explanation for the spontaneous recovery of a Costa Rican woman, Floribeth Mora, from an inoperable brain aneurysm, which had begun to leak blood into her brain. The event took place after Miss Mora prayed to John Paul II on 1 May 2011, the day on which he was pronounced "Blessed".

Under church law, two miracles are normally required before a person may be canonised. In the case of Pope John Paul II, the earlier miracle was the healing of a French nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, whose recovery from the degenerative illness, Parkinson's disease, after praying for the late John Paul II's intercession, has no medical explanation.

The rapidity of the canonisation is extraordinary. Normally, decades or even centuries pass after a person's death before the Church formally declares their sanctity with the certainty that they are in Heaven.

Popular devotion

However, there has been extraordinary popular devotion to Blessed John Paul II since his death, evident to anyone who visits Rome. Photos and calendars showing John Paul II are available everywhere, and his place of burial in the crypt of St Peter's Basilica is a place of constant pilgrimage, particularly by people from Eastern Europe.

Along with the then US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, John Paul II is widely regarded as the person who brought about the demise of Soviet communism, freeing hundreds of millions of people from an oppressive, atheistic and tyrannical regime which had murdered millions of people since Lenin seized power in Russia in 1917.

What was most remarkable about the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989-90 was that it was achieved without bloodshed – itself a miracle.

As the first non-Italian pope in nearly 600 years, John Paul II became synonymous with the universality of the Catholic Church, visiting 129 countries during his 27 year pontificate, celebrating Mass for millions of the faithful, and personally meeting hundreds of thousands of people. I was privileged to be one of them.

The only countries he did not visit were Russia, China and parts of the Islamic world where he was not welcome.

Apart from many visits to North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, he visited Australia twice, as well as New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Fiji.

On every one of these visits, he fearlessly proclaimed the fullness of the Gospel and defended the teachings of the Church on contentious issues such as sexuality, the sacredness of human life, and in defence of religious freedom.

His own life was a metaphor for the 20th century: the era of greatest persecution of Christianity since the Roman era.

Born in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland, he was the youngest of three surviving children of Karol Wojtyla Snr, a non-commissioned officer in the Polish Army, and his wife Emilia, a school teacher, who died in childbirth in 1929. His older sister died before his birth, and his elder brother, Edmund, who became a doctor, died during a scarlet fever outbreak.

In mid-1938, the future Pope John Paul II moved with his father to Krakow, where he enrolled in the famous Jagiellonian University. After the Nazi invasion a year later, the Germans closed the university, and he worked for several years as a labourer, while attending an underground seminary conducted by the Archbishop of Krakow.

His father died during the period of the Nazi occupation, in 1941.

In August 1944, he narrowly escaped a Gestapo round-up, and made his way to the Archbishop's residence, where he stayed until the Germans were forced out in early 1945.

There are numerous well-documented cases where he assisted persecuted Jews in this period. In 1945, just after the liberation, the seminarian Karol Wojtyla helped a 14-year-old Jewish refugee girl named Edith Zierer who had run away from a Nazi labour camp in Czestochowa. Edith had collapsed on a railway platform, so Karol Wojtyla carried her to a train and stayed with her throughout the journey to Krakow. Edith credits Wojtyla with saving her life that day.

Ordination

Karol Wojtyla was ordained in Krakow in November 1946, after which his bishop, Cardinal Sapieha, sent him to Rome where he studied for two years, obtaining a doctorate in philosophy from the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, in 1948.

He returned to Poland, becoming a country parish priest, before being posted back to Krakow, where he was a parish priest as well as a lecturer at both the Jagiellonian University and the University of Lublin. He also continued his academic studies, receiving further degrees.

During the period of Soviet occupation after the war, he illegally established a youth group which grew to 200 people, as well as writing plays and contributing articles to a Catholic newspaper.

He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958, wrote the important book Love and Responsibility in 1960, and attended the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), where he and the other Polish bishops contributed to two of the Council's most important documents, Dignitatis Humanae (Decree on Religious Freedom), and Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World).

These were critical issues for the persecuted church in Poland, and for believers throughout the communist world.

Bishop Wojtyla was made Archbishop of Krakow in 1964, and appointed to the Commission established by Pope Paul VI into the church's teaching on artificial contraception. He contributed to Paul VI's courageous encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, which reaffirmed the Church's teaching on human sexuality and rejected artificial contraception.

In the same year, at the age of 47, he became one of the youngest cardinals in the Catholic Church.

In 1978, after the death of Pope John Paul I, who had been elected pope only a month earlier, the cardinals chose Cardinal Wojtyla as his successor, the first non-Italian pope in over 450 years.

He took the name John Paul II and immediately set about an extraordinary program of international visits, coupled with attempts to complete the administrative reforms authorised by Vatican II, correct exaggerations in both teachings and liturgy which followed the Council, reform the Code of Canon Law and draft the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Persecuted church

The earliest of John Paul II's international visits were to the Dominican Republic and Mexico in January 1979, where the church had been persecuted for most of the 20th century.

A short time later, he made his first historic pastoral visit to his homeland, Poland, which was still under the Soviet yoke.

The communists wanted to use the visit of this national hero to "prove" to the outside world that religious freedom existed in communist states, and to legitimise themselves to the Polish people.

It did not turn out that way.

As one writer said, "The Pope won that struggle by transcending politics. His was what Joseph Nye calls 'soft power'– the power of attraction and repulsion.

"He began with an enormous advantage, and exploited it to the utmost: He headed the one institution that stood for the polar opposite of the communist way of life that the Polish people hated.

"He was a Pole, but beyond the regime's reach.

"By identifying with him, Poles would have the chance to cleanse themselves of the compromises they had to make to live under the regime. And so they came to him by the millions. They listened.

"He told them to be good, not to compromise themselves, to stick by one another, to be fearless, and that God is the only source of goodness, the only standard of conduct. 'Be not afraid,' he said."

Although the regime lasted another decade and repeatedly tried to destroy both the Church and the lay-led workers' movement Solidarity, which the pope's visit had initiated, the regime's moral bankruptcy had been exposed.

The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said later, "The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II."

A short time after this visit, a professional Turkish assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, fired on him from point-blank range in St Peter's Square in 1981. After hovering between life and death for days, the Pope survived, and attributed his survival to the intervention of Our Lady, who is patroness of Poland.

While the Soviet regime was widely believed to have ordered the assassination, the Pope himself never displayed hostility towards anyone, and later personally visited Agca in an Italian prison to forgive him.

While John Paul II was widely acknowledged as one of the architects of the demise of Soviet communism, less well known was his role in bringing democracy to Latin America.

During his visit to Chile in 1987, he met human rights activists and opponents of the Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, as well as the general himself. According to the noted American author George Weigal, and the Pope's secretary at the time, Cardinal Dziwisz, the Pope directly called on Pinochet to step down and return Chile to a democracy.

According to Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the postulator of John Paul II's beatification cause, John Paul's words to Pinochet had a profound impact on the Chilean dictator. The Polish Pope confided to a friend: "I received a letter from Pinochet in which he told me that, as a Catholic, he had listened to my words, he had accepted them, and he had decided to begin the process to change the leadership of his country."

During visits to Haiti and Paraguay, the Pope also spoke out against dictatorships in both countries, and the regimes later collapsed. However, the Castro regime in Cuba remained unchallenged after the Pope's visit to the island in 1998.

Doctrinal leadership

Quite apart from his pastoral leadership, John Paul II reaffirmed and updated the Church's doctrinal teaching.

Apart from prepared talks at his weekly audiences, he wrote 14 encyclicals covering the range of issues facing the Church and Catholics in contemporary society.

These included Ecclesia de Eucharistia (on the significance of the Blessed Sacrament), Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (on the Sacrament of Penance) and Redemptoris Mater (the special place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in God's plan of salvation).

John Paul II also wrote extensively about workers and the social doctrine of the Church, which he discussed in three encyclicals, while through encyclicals, apostolic letters and exhortations, he emphasised the dignity of women and the role of the family for the future of humanity.

Following on from his own pastoral experience with young people, John Paul II inaugurated World Youth Day (WYD) as a global event bringing together young Catholics for prayer, spiritual formation and fellowship. From the first WYD in Rome in 1985, subsequent events have been attended by millions of young people in a host of countries worldwide.

These events have had a positive impact on the young people who participated in them, leading to a measurable increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

The impact of John Paul II's pontificate was so profound that it is difficult to comprehend.

Even at his Requiem Mass, attended by hundreds of thousands in St Peter's Square in 2005, people held up hand-drawn posters with the words, "Santo subito", which means roughly, "Sainthood now". His canonisation, coming with the simultaneous canonisation of Blessed John XXIII, will ensure that he is the subject of prayerful veneration and intercession for years to come.

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