Not long ago, I was catching up with an old friend who had recently gotten sober and was beginning to receive a lot of attention in his work as an investigative reporter. When I asked if he wanted to make the leap from reporter to columnist, I was surprised that he said he didn’t think he could. “A columnist’s success is based on seeing things in black and white” he said. “Since I’ve gotten sober I tend to see a lot more greys.”
As a Catholic, the same could be said for my thoughts on Pope John Paull II’s legacy. This iconic figure of the 20th century continues to cast a long shadow since his death six years ago but in the intervening years I feel I’m better able to see the contours of that shadow and distinguish between what was the mark of true greatness and what was obscuring some darker aspects of his pontificate that we’ve yet to fully deal with.
I’m proud of how this Polish-born pontiff was instrumental in hastening the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. But I struggle to reconcile the deep spirit of solidarity and hope he inspired behind the Iron Curtain with his inability to recognize how that same spirit might have been at work in the liberation theology that took root in Latin America in the 70s and 80s before he cracked down on it.
John Paul’s abilities as a communicator were unparalleled and his legacy of connection and love that so many young people felt for him is profound. But I’m distressed that this deeply creative man’s more lasting legacy might be the appointment of so many bishops who sadly seem to lack anything approaching his imaginative spark, vision, leadership or even sense of joyfulness. What will be the long-term effects of so many of these shepherds who often seem to communicate from positions of fear and insularity? How will younger generations who are more worldly, well-educated, globally connected and deeply media savvy react to a church that communicates in ways that seem less and less relevant to their daily lives?
The former pontiff’s outreach to Jews and willingness to ask for forgiveness was transformational. But his defensiveness and inability to address the reality of the sexual abuse scandal continues to haunt every committed Catholic. It is a global tragedy that has yet to be fully reckoned with and to which there is no discernible end in site. It has turned into a stain on our church’s leadership, credibility and accountability that will take generations to remove.
John Paul II’s papacy coincided with a digital information revolution that has flattened the earth and connected humanity in unprecedented ways. That interconnectivity has also made us more aware and accepting of the enormous complexity of reality. If he were a saint—which is a judgment way beyond my pay grade—my hope is that we don’t fall into the trap of traditional hagiography in which we sanitize the lives of holy people until they become our own projection of some strange mixture of piety and perfection. One can be admired and honored without being faultless.
The chants of “Santo subito!” (Sainthood Now) that rose from the crowds at his funeral six years ago in St. Peter’s Square were a spontaneous acknowledgment of the fact that we were witnessing the passing of a singular presence on the world stage. It was the celebration of an epic life. In the hangover that has followed perhaps Pope John Paul’s legacy is the sobering lesson that saintliness is not a black and white issue.
Bill McGarvey is a writer, editor and musician who has written extensively on the intersection of faith and culture. In addition to his current role as a partner in CathNews USA, he is the author of the just-released Freshman Survival Guide, (Center Street Press, Hachette Book Group) and was the editor-in-chief of BustedHalo.com, from 2004-2010. McGarvey has also written for NPR, Time Out New York, Commonweal, America, The Tablet (London), Factual (Spain) and Book magazine. As a musician, McGarvey’s music has been critically acclaimed by the New York Times, Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Billboard and Performing Songwriter.