Two million in Rome for beatification of John Paul II

Two million in Rome for beatification of John Paul II

Peter Westmore

In one of the largest religious ceremonies ever to be held, around two million people are expected in St Peter's Square for the beatification of Pope John Paul II on 1 May - just over six years after his death.

The speed of his beatification shows the remarkable degree of popular piety associated with the first non-Italian Pope in 450 years, which is evident to anyone who visits the holy places in Rome.

During my visit there for the canonisation of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop last year, there were constant reminders of the presence of this extraordinary man, and not just among Polish people who revere the man largely responsible for freeing his homeland from the tyranny of communism. His presence was seen everywhere in shops selling religious requisites, in gift and souvenir stores.

The deep and widespread popular devotion to John Paul II has undoubtedly accelerated the Church's investigation into the sanctity of the last pope.

Beatification process

Just over a month after the death of John Paul II, Pope Benedict authorised the commencement of the process which has led to his beatification.

Then followed an examination of his life and writings, both before and after his elevation to the papacy in 1978.

While a parish priest in Poland in 1960, Fr Karol Wojtyla (as he then was) wrote an important work, Love and Responsibility, which included a detailed examination of the difficult issue of human sexuality. In it, he argued that this faculty is a God-given gift, ordained towards the union of a man and woman in marriage, to uplift them and provide the best environment for the love and care of children, and for raising them to maturity.

He emphasised that love often involves sacrifice, and human love involves submission to the good of one's spouse and children, and self-control over the natural sexual appetite.

This analysis is radically at odds with the views of contemporary culture which views sex as merely a means of human fulfilment, or even no more than a recreational activity.

When Pope, he promoted the formation of the John Paul II Institute of Marriage and Family to promote this Christian view of love and marriage.

As Pope, John Paul II was a prolific communicator. His principal documents included 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions and 45 apostolic letters which are frequently quoted today.

The Pope also published five books: Crossing the Threshold of Hope; Gift and Mystery: On the 50th Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination; Roman Triptych – Meditations; Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way; and Memory and Identity, published in the year he died.

John Paul II presided at 147 beatification and 51 canonisation ceremonies (for 482 Saints) during his pontificate. He held nine consistories in which he created 231 cardinals and also convened six plenary meetings of the College of Cardinals.

He promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the revised Code of Canon Law, and was responsible for a major reorganisation of the Vatican to reflect the universal character of the Catholic Church.

His evangelical spirit led to an unprecedented number of visits to almost every country of the world (except the USSR, China and some Islamic countries where he was unwelcome), where he addressed the most difficult pastoral issues of each country, strengthening Christianity around the world. He had a particular affection for the Orthodox Churches, and established World Youth Day as an occasion to bring together young Catholics in an affirmation of faith.

Apart from this, he was also a man of enormous personal holiness. He led a deep spiritual life, praying before the altar for hours every day, as well as celebrating Mass, reciting the Rosary, and having the most intense devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, to whom he dedicated his pontificate.

Pope John Paul II's critics have decried the beatification, blaming him for some of the problems which the Church encountered during his papacy, including particularly the sex abuse scandals, and the liturgical anarchy which has continued in many countries since the early 1970s.

The response to these claims is quite simple. As Pope, John Paul II spoke out forcefully and consistently against abuses within the Church, and relied on bishops to implement his teachings throughout the world. The failures were theirs, rather than his. Further, these problems have always existed to some degree, and are a reflection of human weakness, of original sin.

Santo Subito!

Others have argued that the miracle attributed to John Paul II is uncertain. In fact, the case involved a French nun's spontaneous remission from Parkinson's Disease, a progressive and debilitating condition for which there is currently no known cure.

The beatification of John Paul II provides an occasion to pray to a revered pope who embodied the true spirit of Christianity. From his deep relationship with God sprang his complete detachment from material possessions and personal ambition, and his willingness to sacrifice himself for others.

He enjoyed people's company, seen most clearly during his worldwide pastoral visits, characterised by extraordinary spontaneity, but also a reaffirmation of faith.

Yet he was constantly the subject of criticism and even abuse. He was willing to defend the Church, both under the communist authorities in Poland and against the profound secularism of the Western world. As hand-made posters proclaimed at his Requiem Mass: Santo Subito!

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