The Vatican Files no. 6

Article by   December 2011

Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005), better known as Pope John Paul II since 1978, is one of the most influential men of the twentieth century. A quick look at the titles of biographies about him shows the magnitude of the man: "The man of the end of the millennium" (L. Accattoli), "Witness to hope" (G. Weigel), "The man of the century" (J. Kwitny), "Pilgrim of the absolute" (G. Reale), "The defeater of communism" (A. Santini). As is always the case with human analyses of human biographies, celebrative voices abound as well as critical readings. Other titles point to the controversial aspects of his life: "Victory and decline" (C. Cardia), "The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II's Papacy" (J. Cornwell), "The Wojtyla enigma" (J. Arias), "The last Pope king" (L. Sandri).

His life was at the centre of the major affairs of the twentieth century: the tragedy of Nazism and the trauma of the Second World War, the apex and fall of Communism, the Second Vatican Council and its debated implementation, the apparent triumph of Western democracy and the oppressive costs of globalization for the Majority world, the fracture of ideologies and the rise of secular hedonism. Wojtyła played a significant role in all these major events. Supporters have acclaimed his achievements in terms of navigating, surviving and overcoming the dangerous streams of our post-something world. Critics have pointed out the double-faced, contradictory trajectory of his life and his very backward looking Catholic outlook.

The year 2011 marked the beatification of John Paul II; the official ceremony took place on May 1 in St. Peter's square. An estimated one and a half million people witnessed this massive event that captured the attention of the whole world. So it is proper to examine the significance of his beatification and how John Paul II's legacy can be properly assessed.

First, we should inquire about the meaning of beatification in Roman Catholic eyes. Beatification (from Latin beatus, meaning "blessed") is a recognition accorded by the RC Church of a dead person's virtues and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name. The "blessed" (so she/he is named thereafter) becomes the recipient of petitions and intercession of those who offer them. Beatification is the third of four steps in the canonization process, with the highest recognition being the sainthood of an individual. Since 1983, in order to be recognized as "blessed", the RC Church demands that one miracle be proven to have taken place through the intercession of the person. The process towards beatification can only begin five years after the person's death. However, in John Paul II's case, it began much earlier. Many still remember what happens at his funerals when the crowd began to shout: "santo subito!" ("Make him a saint now!"), thus putting pressure on the hierarchy to treat him as an extraordinary case - something that even a scrupulous Pope like Benedict XVI dared not to address.

The theological significance of beatification lies in several key RC doctrines. According to Vatican II, the saints "do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth" through Christ's mediation (Lumen Gentium, n. 49, quoted also in the Catechism, n. 956). The saints, in whose category the blessed belong, have an intercessory role on the basis of their merits which are considered within the framework of the mediation of Jesus Christ. On this basis, Catholics are encouraged to pray to the blessed for healing, protection, and favor. In addition to this, they are instructed to nurture a profound devotion to him/her consisting of pilgrimages, prayer groups / chains, folk spirituality, etc. Notwithstanding all the best intentions and motivations, evangelicals find it difficult to believe that the process of beatification acts as a means to move people away from Christ. In this respect, it is interesting to note that John Paul II himself, in his twenty-seven years of papal reign, proclaimed as blessed 1338 people and as saints 482 people, more than all his predecessors taken together since the sixteenth century! In fact, it was in 1588 that modern procedures were established for the beatification process and prior to John Paul II the RC Church proclaimed 1319 as blessed and 296 as saints.

Second, how do we assess John Paul II's legacy? Because of the stature of the man, the question is overwhelming in every respect. Among the vast amount of literature available, one guide in particular worth noting is Tim Perry's edited book The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment (Downers Grove, IL: IVP 2007, pp. 327). This volume represents one of the few attempts to provide an evaluation from an evangelical point of view. The book bears witness to the fact that it was under John Paul II that evangelical attitudes toward RC began to change and become friendly, if not even cooperative. This Pope was the one who called his Church to be engaged in mission, encouraged the pro-life front, welcomed some of the evangelical concerns in relation to Bible literacy and liturgical variety, and seemed to be closer to the majority world than his predecessors. It also witnesses to the fact that some evangelicals today speak of the Pope as "Holy Father" (Timothy George, cf. pp. 309-312) - something that is not biblically natural. Moreover, in evaluating the over-all theology of his fourteen encyclicals, some evangelicals can say that it is "Bible-based, humanity-focused, Christ-centered and mission-attuned" (Jim Packer, p. 8) - something that sounds like a full endorsement.

Certainly there has been a significant shift of attitude on the part of evangelicals, as John Paul II has made quite an impact on the evangelical world. The book edited by Perry contains positive comments on each encyclical signed by Wojtyla and the tone is close to admiration, with some minor criticism. Of course, much of it is a fair summary of what the Pope wrote, yet selective in many ways. For instance, there is no mention that each encyclical ends with an invocation to Mary, which does not represent a Christocentric and biblical pattern. Moreover, there is little recognition of the fact that, more often than not, papal encyclicals quote from the traditions of the church rather than the Bible. The Bible is only one source amongst many, and apparently not the decisive one.

A few examples must suffice. The 1998 encyclical Faith and Ratio (Faith and Reason) combines Aristotelian reason and Thomistic faith, a choice that leaves out many Biblical strands. Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church from the Eucharist, 2003) reinforces the traditional RC doctrine of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, its re-enactment of Jesus' death and the practice of adoration of the host. Ut Unum Sint (That They Be One, 1995) claims that the Pope is willing to change the forms of his universal ministry but not the substance of his Petrine office that supplements the headship of Christ on the church. Redemptoris Mater (The Mother of the Redeemer, 1987) is a Marian-centered re-telling of salvation history, something that the Bible does not encourage. The list could go on and on, yet one point must be further elaborated.

Marian devotion was a characterizing feature of John Paul II's life. He believed the so-called secrets of Fatima, in which Mary played a decisive role, deviating the bullet when the Pope was shot in 1981 by the terrorist Ali Agca. Apparently, the Pope believed in Marian providence, considering Mary a major player in world affairs, both earthly and cosmic, both material and spiritual. For this reason he was able to dedicate planet earth to her at the beginning of the new millennium, along with the human family and new century, pleading for protection and guidance all the while. Moreover, his personal motto was totus tuus, totally yours, with "yours" referring to Mary. In honor of his highly Marian spirituality, the beatification ceremony will take place on May 1, at the beginning of the Marian month according to the RC liturgical calendar.

The question remains: Is the legacy of John Paul II Bible-based and Christ-centered? The answer is not as simple and straightforward as Tim Perry's book seems to indicate. His strong Marianism, for instance, is a defining feature of his life that always qualifies the rest. The years ahead will be another opportunity to come to terms with his pontificate, his achievements and contradictions, and indeed his inherently Roman Catholic legacy.

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