4:13pm

Wed April 27, 2011
Religion

John Paul's Rise Toward Sainthood: Going Too Fast?

The chants began even before Pope John Paul II had been put to his final rest, as his coffin was carried through St. Peter's Square: "Santo Subito! Santo Subito!"

"Sainthood now!"

A month later, Pope Benedict XVI — his successor and close friend — launched the process that would do just that. On Sunday, John Paul II will be beatified in Rome, bringing him one step away from sainthood.

"I was not surprised at all" that John Paul's beatification is being fast-tracked, says Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. Dolan, who observed John Paul up close when he lived in Rome for seven years, says this is not a difficult call.

"I was able to see him with people. I was able to see him at prayer and worship. I was able to see him with the poor. I was able to watch him in his travels," Dolan says. "And I knew there was something mystical, there was something transcendent, there was something unique."

Some Catholics are questioning whether the late pontiff is being elevated a little too fast, but Dolan says John Paul's character and achievements are indisputable. The Polish pope is credited with helping bring down communism. He repaired relations with the Jews. He forgave the assailant who nearly killed him. And he wooed a young generation back to the faith.

John Paul revitalized every part of the church, says theologian and author Michael Novak.

"We have a whole wave of priests in the Catholic Church who call themselves 'John Paul II priests,'" Novak says. "There are also a wave of people who became Catholics because of John Paul II. His effect on minds and hearts was just unparalleled — maybe in all human history."

Mixed Feelings

Novak's sentiment is echoed by some of the faithful dashing into noon Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

"He was like the Reagan or the Obama of popes," said 21-year-old Joseph Leveratto. "He was appealing. You felt like he was a warm, caring, loving holy father."

Julia Sendor, a 24-year-old Polish American, said her family is throwing a party on Sunday to celebrate the beatification.

"It's a sign that even today, in our modern world, you can have people who can make a change through their faith," she says. "So we're really excited."

But some were less enthusiastic.

"His record was far from unblemished, and there are certainly many bad things that happened in the church while he was pope," said Nicholas Porritt. "So I'm not sure this rush to beatify him is necessarily in the best interest of the church."

"I think that the process exists for a reason," said Carmen Iezzi, "and should be followed no matter who it is or how famous or popular they are."

'What's The Rush?'

Under normal circumstances, the Vatican waits five years before it even starts the process of making someone a saint. But in John Paul's case, Pope Benedict waived the waiting period. That has Catholics across the spectrum concerned.

"What's the rush?" asks Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey.

"One of the reasons you want to go slowly is you don't want to have a horrifying 'oops' moment," he says. "Because saints cannot be unsainted. I don't think any time in history has one been de-canonized."

Popes require special care, says the Rev. Joseph Fessio, the founder of Ignatius Press. It's one thing to fast-track Mother Teresa, who founded a ministry for the sick. But Fessio says the Vatican should take more time with the head of the church.

"As a pope, he's a historic figure," Fessio says. "And usually historic figures don't take their place in history until after some history has gone by and they can be assessed from a longer distance."

The same rigor should apply to miracles, says Michael Matt, editor of the Catholic newspaper The Remnant. For beatification, the Vatican must conclude that Pope John Paul is responsible for a miracle, as evidence that he is in the presence of God and can help people with their prayers. In John Paul's case, the Vatican says a French nun was healed from Parkinson's disease after praying to the late pontiff. But Matt says there are questions surrounding that miracle — some reports suggest her symptoms may have come back, and other reports raise questions about whether she had Parkinson's disease.

"So when you combine those sorts of question marks about the science, about the miracle, about the cure, many of us are very concerned about the reputation of our own church, and about the scandals that could come out after this," Matt says.

Concerns About The Sex Abuse Scandal

Matt is even more troubled that the Vatican is fast-tracking "the pope who presided over the single greatest clerical sex abuse scandal in the history of the church."

John Paul might not have been directly responsible, he says, "but at end of the day, the church has undergone this terrible period in which there was a dereliction of duty at every level of the hierarchy, including, it would appear, at the level of the papacy."

For example, John Paul failed to punish the American bishops who protected pedophile priests; Cardinal Bernard Law was moved to a prestigious post in Rome after the sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston. And he neglected to investigate the priest who founded the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel, despite mounting evidence that Maciel had abused countless children.

Archbishop Dolan says the pope was initially slow to recognize the problem. But once he did, he summoned the U.S. bishops to Rome and told them to fix it.

"So there might be some glitches and there might be things that when you look back, you say, 'Boy, I wish that would have been responded to in a different manner,'" he says. "But overwhelmingly, you're talking about a man of radiant virtue and extraordinary sanctity."

Novak, the theologian and author, says all these objections pale next to the late pontiff's virtues.

"Surely this man was so thoroughly known, and there were so many witnesses to his holiness, that if for anybody there could be a fast track, it should be for him," he says.

With the beatification assured, the Vatican will be looking for a second miracle that would elevate John Paul to sainthood. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.