John Paul II relics appear as beatification nears

The Associated Press
Friday, March 18, 2011; 7:47 AM

WARSAW, Poland -- Pope John Paul II is not yet a saint, but objects donated by his longtime secretary are already being venerated as relics in his staunchly Roman Catholic homeland.

Polish Formula 1 driver Robert Kubica keeps a medallion containing a fragment of the late pontiff's robe and a drop of John Paul's blood given to him by Krakow's Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz after a high-speed accident at a race in Italy.

At the Sanctuary of Our Lord's Divine Mercy church in Krakow, a new altar also will include a vial of the Polish Pope's blood donated by his secretary and friend.

The relics are just one sign of Poles' devotion to their homegrown pope, who served 27 years, and was put on the fast-track for sainthood after shouts of "Santo Subito!" - or "Sainthood Immediately!" - erupted during his funeral Mass at St. Peter's Square in Rome.

Though beatification, the last major step before possible sainthood, is still six weeks away on May 1, many Polish Catholics already revere him for his religious devotion and as a national hero who helped bring down communism.

But some critics reject the veneration of relics, saying it smacks of medieval or pagan practices. Others say that by introducing relics into the public cult of John Paul, Dziwisz is reducing the memory of a complex and multidimensional figure to simplistic mementos.

"Relics were needed in times when people could not read or write," said Rev. Krzysztof Madel, a Jesuit priest in Nowy Sacz, near Krakow, who has spoken out against the promotion of the relics. By placing a vial of John Paul's blood in the altar of a church in Krakow, he argued, "we will return to the Middle Ages and magic-based Catholicism."

The veneration of relics goes back to the early days of Christianity, when gatherings were sometimes held secretly on graves of martyrs to avoid persecution. Once Christians were freer to worship churches were built inside cities, but the remains of martyrs were deemed indispensable and were brought to the churches.

Over time, objects like alleged pieces of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, the bones of saints or even what was purported to be John the Baptist's head brought pilgrims to cathedrals in droves, providing an important source of revenue. And Poland already has its share, including the mummified head of a 17th-century martyr, which is inside a glass coffin at Warsaw's St. Andrzej Bobola's church.

This week Warsaw resident Maria Michalczyk stopped by the church, named for the saint, to pray at the relic, saying she was asking him to intercede on her behalf with God.

"I have already experienced so many acts of mercy from him," the 59-year-old said.

Zbigniew Mikolejko, a historian of religion with the Polish Academy of Sciences, argued that John Paul's memory would be better served in a less spectacular way. The church should promote the pope's teachings or teach about his life, which was shaped by the suffering under the German occupation during World War II, the hardships of communist-era life, poverty and the loss of his mother early in his life, Mikolejko said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Associated Press