Strange as it may seem, I’ve been vaguely worried about the beatification on May 1 of a man with whom I was in close conversation for over a decade and to the writing of whose biography I dedicated 15 years of my own life.
My worries don’t have to do with allegations of a “rushed” beatification process; the process has been a thorough one, and the official judgment is the same as the judgment of the people of the Church. I’m also unconcerned about the fretting of ultra-traditionalists for whom John Paul II was a failure because he didn’t restore the French monarchy, impose the Tridentine Mass on the entire Church, and issue thundering anathemas against theologians and wayward politicians. No, my worries have to do with our losing touch with the qualities of the man. When the Church puts the title “Blessed” or “Saint” on someone, the person so honored often drifts away into a realm of the unapproachably good. We lose the sense that the saints are people just-like-us, who, by the grace of God, lived lives of heroic virtue: a truth of the faith of which John Paul II never ceased to remind us.
So what would I have us remember and hold fast to about John Paul II?
First, I hope we remember that everything he did was the accomplishment of a radically converted Christian disciple. His resistance to the Nazi occupation of Poland; his abandonment of his youthful plans in order to enter an underground seminary; his dynamic ministry in Cracow as priest and bishop; his philosophical and literary work; his efforts at Vatican II; his epic pontificate and its teaching; his role in the collapse of European communism and in the defense of the universality of human rights — all of this flowed f ro m his radical conversion to Christ.
Why is this important to stress? Because it’s his connection to the rest of us. There are over a billion Catholics on this planet; very few of us will enjoy the range of intellectual, spiritual, literary, athletic, and linguistic gifts that God gave Karol Wojtyla. Because of our baptism, though, all of us share with him the possibility of being radically converted Christian disciples. All of us can be Christ’s evangelical witnesses in our families, our work, our neighborhoods. All of us can live as though the truth John Paul II taught — that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life — is at the very epicenter of our own lives.
The second thing I hope the Church holds onto, as it enrolls John Paul II among the blessed, is the significance of the date of his beatification: Divine Mercy Sunday. John Paul’s fondness for the Divine Mercy devotion, and his designation of the Octave of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday, struck some as a Polish imposition on a universal Church. Those who thought this were mistaken.
John Paul II had an acute sense of the gaping holes that had been torn in the moral and spiritual fabric of humanity by the murderous cruelties of the 20th century. A century that began with a robust human confidence in the future had ended with a thick fog of cynicism hanging over the western world. As he wrote in his striking 2003 apostolic letter, “The Church in Europe,” Christianity’s historic heartland (and, by extension, the entire western world) was beset by guilt over what it had done in two world wars and the Cold War, at Auschwitz and in the Gulag, through the Ukrainian hunger famine and the communist persecution of the Church. But having abandoned the God of the Bible, it had nowhere to turn to confess this guilt, seek absolution, and find forgiveness.
That, John Paul II was convinced, was why the face of the merciful Father had been turned toward the worldnow. The insight came from Poland; the need was universal. That was why he created “Divine Mercy Sunday.” That is why we should remember that he was beatified on that day.
Thank God for such a life, in our time.
George Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.