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Editorial: New papal saints have flaws as well as greatness

Editorial

The two popes to be elevated to sainthood April 27, John XXIII and John Paul II, embodied some of the ancient forces that have shaped the Christian community since its earliest days. Each, in different measure, represented the tensions that play out perennially between charism and authority, between the rule of law and pastoral sensibilities, between maintaining order at the risk of rigidity and giving free rein to the Spirit at the risk of chaos.

Pope John Paul II, who, for many inside the church, would fall on the law-and-order side of the ledger, could be quite the opposite in his dealings with the wider world and other faiths. He was determined to shake off the church's timidity in its approach to the rest of the world and was a heroic figure who projected an outsized global presence.

He elevated one of the most controversial documents of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, to new levels of significance with gestures that were breathtaking at the time. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue, the first to visit a mosque. He knelt and prayed with the archbishop of Canterbury and reached out repeatedly to the Orthodox. Three times, he invited representatives of the world's faiths to come to pray in Assisi, Italy, raising the hackles of those who accused him of syncretism and of degrading the uniqueness of Catholicism.

He loved the big stage and used it effectively, taking the Gospel message to corners of the world that never expected to see a pope. Millions turned out. He raised the profile of the marginalized, highlighting the plight of the poor and indigenous, and challenging local churches to confront realities they often would rather have ignored. John Paul called attention to the embarrassing gulf between rich and poor, particularly between the rich Northern Hemisphere and the poor global South. He inveighed against U.S. militarism and unbridled capitalism, while playing a major role in the takedown of European communism.

Wherever he trod the international stage, speaking truth across national and cultural boundaries, he was a fitting embodiment of one of his favorite lines of encouragement to the church at large: "Be not afraid!" Indeed, he wasn't. Even in his frailest state, this obviously deeply spiritual and prayerful man found ways to command the world's respect. This bold witness alone, to a world yearning for truth and integrity, is sufficient to warrant sainthood.

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He was also a pope, John L. Allen Jr. wrote on the occasion of John Paul's death, who "leaves behind the irony of a world more united because of his life and legacy, and a church more divided."

If we fully honor our saints, then we honor them in all of their humanity, which means in all of their flaws as well as their greatness. Perhaps there is no better time than now to engage in a bit of sobriety about the record of John Paul II inside the church. It evinced some significant flaws, the results of which were passed on to his successors.

History is full of heroic figures, champions of peace and human rights, who were less than heroic in their dealings with those closest to them. And so it seemed with John Paul. He appeared to have far less patience and tolerance for the foibles within his own religious family. Allen, in the obituary, described him as "the apostle of unity ad extra and the bruiser ad intra."

He methodically gathered power back to Rome. He declared some topics, such as ordination of women, simply impermissible, beyond the realm of discussion. The list of theologians and other thinkers who felt the lash of papal disapproval during his reign was formidable and included some of the most notable in the Catholic galaxy. He surrounded himself with those deemed loyal beyond question. This son of Poland, who survived the Nazis and communists, demanded the kind of "unity" required by those under siege.

In order to accommodate this retrenchment, he needed compliant bishops. During a reign that lasted nearly 26-and-a-half years, longer by far than any other 20th-century pope, he had a great deal of time to effect a change in tone in the global church. He did that, certainly, by his preaching and writing, but most forcefully by his appointments of like-minded bishops and sympathetic cardinals.

Even Allen, the most magnanimous of church watchers, concluded that his bishops "tended to be gray men, noted more for doctrinal reliability than vision or pastoral competence." Their loyalty often translated into a kind of unbending ideology, the underpinning for today's "culture warrior" bishops. The further result in the United States was a splintered and often bitterly divided national conference of bishops lacking strong leadership.

John Paul's inattention to internal church affairs created fertile conditions for the financial and sexual scandals that plagued the church during his tenure. For most of it, he was utterly dismissive of the growing horror of children sexually abused by priests who were, in turn, protected by bishops.

He promoted as a model of heroic priesthood Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ and one of the most disreputable frauds in modern church history. It wasn't until after John Paul's death that the full truth of Maciel's history of sexually abusing young seminarians, as well as the fact that he fathered at least two children by two different women, finally came to light.

When some of the most vulnerable in the community desperately needed a heroic figure, John Paul was unavailable, ignoring warnings from credible witnesses, including some of his own bishops, and seemingly indifferent to their plight until it was too late.

The full scope of the corruption that had taken hold in the Curia and in scandals worldwide during John Paul's reign were enough eventually to cause Pope Benedict XVI to resign and the cardinals themselves to talk openly of the need for the kinds of reform currently underway.

This act of canonization, which illustrates the diversity of approaches the church embraces, also raises another sobering realization that might at first seem tangential to the moment but is quite relevant to this celebration of holy leadership among us. These two new saints, we must acknowledge, were formed in an elite culture of celibate men, whose purpose was defined by a God imagined largely by men in service to men's ambitions.

To borrow a phrase John Paul used in reference to the breach with the Orthodox, the church too often "breathes with one lung" in this regard. Until women, who make up more than half the church, are fully accepted into the institution's councils of leadership, authority and ministry, the community will not be whole.

A hallmark of the council called by John XXIII was aggiornamento, which means updating. Who knows, if we're truly "not afraid" as a community, what updating might occur in a council of the future?

Good Pope John rests in memory in the softer realm of the aforementioned categories, as a pastor deeply concerned for his people and for making life less difficult. He dismissed the doomsayers and was convinced of the basic goodness of humanity.

Not a liberal in any contemporary sense of the word, he was at heart a pastor, by academic training a church historian, not a theologian. All of those elements seemed to inform the instinct that led to his decision to convene the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). While John XXIII presided over the church for only four-and-a-half years, a fraction as long as John Paul II, the legacy of the council and his own imprint on the church will resonate far into the future. His openness to change and his emphasis on pastoral ministry were courageous new initiatives, emerging as they did from an era of open campaigns against theologians and Scripture scholars, as well as papal declarations that the church was an unchanging, perfect society.

In his speech opening the council, John recalled having to listen regularly "to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times, they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, nonetheless, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

"We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand."

His approach to spiritual leadership is contained in the lovely quote: "See everything; overlook a great deal; correct a little."

Sending these two men, who gave their lives to the service of God and God's people, off to another level of citizenship within the community of Christians makes the inescapable point that the church is a dynamic organism, fully human, ever changing, and bathed in God's mercy.

This story appeared in the April 25-May 8, 2014 print issue under the headline: Flaws as well as greatness .

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