The Rush to Beatify John Paul

02/08/2011 08:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bill Briggs Author, 'The Third Miracle: An Ordinary Man, A Medical Mystery, and A Trial of Faith'

The collision course is set: unbridled joy is barreling head long toward simmering cynicism -- at record speed.

It's hard not to watch.

Picture three train tracks, each converging on St. Peter's Square, all arriving the same day, the same hour.

On Track A, the sanctification cause of Pope John Paul II, roaring forward faster than any canonization crusade in the vast annals of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the engines behind this historic push is Pope Benedict XVI himself.

On Track B, the estimated 2 million pilgrims who are expected to swarm Vatican City on May 1 to cheer the second-to-last stop on John Paul's express ride to sainthood -- his beatification ceremony.

On Track C, the critics of the whole, happy campaign. These detractors, many of them proud Catholics, ask with rising volume: Is the man who ran the Church during the dark era of pedophile priests truly worthy of eternal veneration? Further, they demand to know: Why is John Paul being propelled so swiftly toward sainthood when evidence continues to surface suggesting the Vatican intentionally concealed child sexual abuse within its ranks.

Tough questions. Yet, fair and sober challenges.

Simply put: Is the heavily anticipated beatification blow-out for John Paul in any way being rushed to blunt the bad press the Vatican is still absorbing due to its abuse scandal?

Because Pope Benedict waived the mandatory, five-year waiting period to launch John Paul's cause in 2005, the late pontiff will reach that threshold 15 days faster than the previous record holder, Mother Teresa. John Paul had, likewise, waived the waiting period for Mother Teresa. Those are the only two occasions in modern Vatican history when sainthood causes were kicked off early.

A beatification ceremony follows papal investigation into and endorsement of one miracle -- an event defying scientific law, according to Vatican-hired doctors. Moreover, theologians at the Holy See must agree that this claimed supernatural moment followed a prayer to the would-be saint, a request for his or her intercession. In John Paul's case, a French nun says she was cured of Parkinson's disease hours after she prayed to John Paul for healing. (Sainthood is conferred after a pair of Vatican-authorized miracles).

Within a 96-hour window in January, two monumental events shook Rome -- one sunny, one stormy, but both related to John Paul's looming big day. Pope Benedict approved the first miracle attributed to John Paul (and scheduled his beatification). At almost the same time, a new document surfaced -- a "smoking gun," some observers called it -- showing Vatican leaders told Irish bishops in 1997 to bury the sex-abuse cases against Irish priests.

Reported by The New York Times, the communiqué disclosed the Vatican held serious reservations about the bishops' policy of informing local police about any priests suspected of molesting or raping children. The document appeared to contradict the Vatican's repeated assertions that it never impeded criminal investigations of church child-abuse suspects.

This revelation, of course, stoked the calls to shelve -- or at least slow -- John Paul's brisk march toward sainthood.

And don't dismiss the doubters as a stray band of Church radicals. They span every continent and at least 20 countries.

We Are Church, formed within the Roman Catholic Church in 1996, recently described John Paul as "contradictory." The group, which has a German address, contends John Paul allowed the sex-abuse scandal to spread due, in part, to his need for "hierarchical control." It argues that "sainthood should not be measured by whether a 'miracle' can be attributed to a particular person, but rather, whether someone's life truly embodies the values of Christ who sought, not power, but the well-being of God's people."

In Mexico, Observatorio Eclesial launched a global campaign against the beatification. The group has specifically highlighted John Paul's close relationship with Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, who ran the Legion of Christ until 2004. The Legion of Christ operates 21 Catholic prep schools and three seminaries for teenage boys. Observatorio Eclesial argues John Paul staunchly backed Degollado despite accusations that the priest raped young boys from the 1950s to the 1990s. That alone, they contend, is reason enough not to saint John Paul.

"John Paul knew precisely what was going on and did not address it," said Thomas Doyle, an American Catholic priest who also stands against the beatification. "When the matter came up publicly, he blamed secularism, he blamed the media, he blamed the priests. But he never blamed the bishops or the Vatican. And now they want to make him a saint."

No sainted person lived a perfect life, of course. One of the reasons the Catholic Church names saints is to provide the faithful with human role models who tried to live virtuous lives, whose examples we may choose to follow.

As I reported my book, The Third Miracle, the Indiana nun who spearheaded the campaign for the most recently sainted American explained to me why she feels it is still relevant for the Church to legitimize saints.

"We all need someone to look up to and imitate," said Sister Marie Kevin Tighe, a member of the Sisters of Providence convent near Terre Haute. "One reason we're alive is to become holy. It doesn't mean we're trying to be little gods. God showed us an example of what it's like to be human -- and to be like God -- by sending Jesus to Earth. It doesn't mean we're trying to be little gods."

Surely, all saints made mistakes in the lives. John Paul was, by no means, perfect.

What critics of his sainthood cause are simply asking is: did he, as pope, offer a blueprint that we, as humans, should be following?

The 2 million people who wedge themselves into Vatican City in about three months certainly think so.

And however you come down on the key questions of what John Paul knew and what he allowed to take place during his papacy, there's no stopping the big party in Rome.