No one understood the symbolic power of saint-making better than Pope John Paul II, who proclaimed 482 of them — a 500-year record — and included far more diverse role models, too. Only God makes a saint, of course, but the official imprimatur of the church says, “Do what this person did.”
Which is why, though I have no doubts about John Paul’s personal holiness, I wish we weren’t rushing to canonize him this year, only eight years after his death, along with John XXIII.
There was something about John Paul — to the point that I burst into tears the first time I was in his presence, very much to my own surprise, when I would have sworn I wasn’t any more keyed up about his 1987 arrival in San Antonio than anybody else in the press pool that day; up until that minute, I mostly had been thinking about my deadline.
The former Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, accomplished some great things: He went on an actual apology tour, repeatedly begging the forgiveness of the Jewish people for centuries of slander and mistreatment. He visited Auschwitz and Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and was the first pope to pay an official visit to a synagogue, and later, to a mosque.
He not only asked for forgiveness, but gave it, too, even to the man who shot him. As globe-trotting as Hillary Clinton, he made 104 foreign trips, none more important than his first return as pope to his native Poland, where he inspired Lech Walesa to form the trade union Solidarity.
Yet while he inspired the young, it must also be acknowledged that he did not protect them, and for decades ignored evidence of the clerical sexual abuse that devastated thousands of lives, and did real and lasting damage to the church he loved so much.
His reasoning is not a mystery: When the communists in his home country wanted to discredit someone, they smeared him as a pedophile, which is why John Paul disbelieved so much for so long, and with such terrible consequences.
Still, every saint has a story to tell — sending a specific message with each one is very much the point — and John Paul’s is now impossible to separate from the scandals.
He knew the power of story and of example when he proclaimed more than 100 Korean martyrs — Christian victims of religious persecution in the 18th and 19 centuries — in Seoul. That choice not only honored their sacrifice but sent a message about the modern prosecution of the faithful. As did his canonization of Cristóbal Magallanes Jara and 19 other martyrs of the Cristero War on Catholics in Mexico in 1927.
John Paul also brought many more lay people into the ranks of saintly role models, to send the (now sadly unnecessary) message that we are no less holy than men in collars. But one laywoman whose example I was sorry to see upheld was that of an Italian pediatrician, Gianna Beretta Molla. She was just 39 when she died in 1962, days after giving birth to her fourth child. During her pregnancy, doctors had found a tumor in her uterus and advised her that she could die unless she had an abortion.
She didn’t have it, of course, and did die, just as she’d been warned she might. When she was made Saint Gianna, John Paul praised her “extreme sacrifice.” But to me, telling women that the right move is to sacrifice your own life in such a situation is wrong. Even if, yes, it’s somewhat more understandable in light of the fact that John Paul’s own mother died giving birth to a stillborn child.
So what message does John Paul’s soon-to-be sainthood send? A decidedly mixed one.
Pope Francis is trying to unite the left and right by bringing them together to celebrate the canonization of conservative favorite John Paul II and liberal favorite John XXIII. But I wonder what John Paul himself would say the moral of his story is.