A rush toward sainthood for John Paul II?

January 14, 2011

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI has recognized a miracle attributed
to Pope John Paul II, bringing the late pontiff one step from sainthood
a mere six years after his death, the Vatican announced on Friday (Jan.
14).


By signing a decree accepting the miracle, Benedict completed one
of most rapid beatifications in the modern history of the Catholic
Church. Another miracle attributed to John Paul's intercession will be
required before he can be declared a saint.


The process leading to beatification and sainthood ordinarily does
not begin until at least five years after death. But during John Paul's
funeral in April 2005, crowds repeatedly called out "santo subito!"
(Italian for "a saint at once!"). Benedict waived the required waiting
period less than two months later.


"From a strictly PR point of view this is a big gamble for the
Vatican," said John L. Allen, Jr., senior correspondent for the
U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter. "John Paul was obviously a wildly
popular pope and this could be a way to revive memories of his bold,
self-confident style."


The beatification ceremony, to be held in St. Peter's Square on May
1 -- the Sunday after Easter -- is likely to attract vast numbers of
pilgrims from around the world, especially from John Paul's native
Poland. John Paul's funeral drew an estimated 4 million mourners to
Rome.


But Allen warned that honoring the late pontiff so soon after his
death "could also invite debate over his legacy, particularly his record
on the sexual abuse crisis."


Critics say that the Vatican under John Paul mishandled many
pedophilia cases by failing to discipline guilty priests, who in some
cases went on to molest other children. On Friday, an American advocate
for sex abuse victims denounced the "unwise and frantic rush" of John
Paul's beatification.


"There's a reason we usually move slowly in honoring public
figures," said Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of those Abused
by Priests (SNAP). "Often, some of their unsavory actions and inactions
surface years later."


Defenders of the late pope say that the abuse crisis is irrelevant
to the question of John Paul's personal sanctity.


"This is a celebration of the man's heroic virtue," said Carl A.
Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus. "This doesn't mean
that he did everything perfectly, but it means that the holiness of his
life should be emulated."


The Vatican is clearly sensitive to the perception that it has
rushed to honor John Paul. In an unusual move, it accompanied Friday's
announcement with a detailed chronology of the steps leading to
Benedict's decision, emphasizing that the requirements of church law,
aside from the waiting period, had been "observed in full."


One of the required steps was the October 2010 ruling by a panel of
physicians that a French nun's recovery from Parkinson's disease after
praying to John Paul -- who suffered from the same disease -- was
"scientifically inexplicable."


John Paul set a precedent for his own expedited beatification when
he waived the waiting period for Mother Teresa of Calcutta just 18
months after her death in 1997. She was beatified in 2003.


Observers agreed that the speed of the beatification process would
not undermine its credibility in the eyes of John Paul's many devotees.


"The Catholic grassroots has no doubt that this man is a saint,"
Allen said.


"I don't think that the average person in the pews really cares that
the five-year waiting period has been suspended for John Paul," said the
Rev. Thomas J. Reese, Senior Fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at
Georgetown University and author of "Inside the Vatican."


The danger of a sainthood fast-track, according to Reese, lies in
the possibility of setting a precedent.


"If you suspend the waiting period for John Paul II and Mother
Teresa, then who's next?" Reese said, noting that many Argentines called
for the canonization of Eva Peron, their country's popular first lady,
following her death in 1952.


"In that case it was very easy for the church to say, `Well, there's
a five-year waiting period,"' Reese said. "It's good to have time for
emotions to cool."


Benedict also signed eight other decrees on Friday recognizing the
merits of potential saints. Among those honored was the Rev. Nelson
Baker, an American priest who died in 1936, after founding several
charitable institutions near Buffalo, N.Y. The pope recognized Baker's
"heroic virtue," making him eligible for beatification.