It has been an amazing 24 hours. The late Pope John Paul II was beatified in Rome by his successor and close collaborator Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. Beatification, or solemn declaration by the Pope in the name of the Church of a person as “Blessed”, is the last stage before canonisation as a saint. There had been some criticism of what was portrayed as the unseemly haste with which the good pope’s cause for sainthood was pursued. Yet who cannot remember the cries of “Santo subito!” that arose from the massed crowds at Blessed John Paul’s funeral?
It should be remembered of course that, until the papacy took charge of canonizations in medieval times, canonizations had been by such acclamation as was heard at the blessed pope’s funeral. Even though the process for beatification and canonisation is now so formal and rigorous, nevertheless the opinion of the faithful (the sensus fidelium in properly theological terms) is integral, indeed essential to the whole process. The absence of a cultus or following for a person proposed for canonisation imperils his or her cause for sainthood. Since beatification and canonisation are a response to the widespread recognition of exemplary sanctity in a person, the lack of a following implies a lack of such recognition. In that case the process would be futile. Or to look at it from another angle, beatification and canonisation involve not only a recognition that a person is with God, but also involve a proposition to the Church that such a person has qualities that reflect to a high degree fidelity to Christ and the life of holiness, and that this person has lived a life, or in the case of martyrs died a death, worthy of emulation by Christians. A strong following for a person proposed for sainthood implies that the people of God already recognises in that person these qualities, and this empowers and encourages the Church to proceed with that person’s cause. That more than 1 million people came to Rome itself to witness and affirm the beatification is testimony enough to the people’s recognition of sanctity in him.
Of course in Pope John Paul we see both a life and a death worthy of emulation. He suffered under Nazism and Communism, and from that experience learnt to treasure the gospel truths of hope and mercy, which blossomed in his papacy. It is no coincidence that Church saw fit to beatify him on Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast Blessed John Paul II instituted and a devotion to which he was passionately committed. By preaching the gospel of hope in season and out, he was instrumental in the downfall of communism and in restoring some semblance of order to the Church after the turmoil of the 70s. That he did not solve or address every problem can hardly be held against him: not every battle can be fought by one man. And moreover, that he made some mistakes in matters of policy is likewise evidence only of his frail humanity.
The blessed pope’s last years were poignant to say the least. As his body was increasingly oppressed by Parkinson’s disease, the lifelight slowly ebbed from his body. But not from his spirit, nor his soul. His courageous perseverance to the end in his papal ministry were to the Church and to the world an icon of the redemptive value of suffering rightly accepted in faith, and also of the value of all human life, even when overwhelmed by illness and infirmity.
As we honoured one man’s death yesterday, another man died, and who is to say the two events are not related in ways unseen by us. Crowds rejoiced at this man’s death, but not as for Blessed John Paul II. Osama bin Laden, the arch-terrorist, was killed by US special forces at his mansion-hideout in Pakistan. It is stirring news. Though he never faced a court, it has to be said that the evidence against him appeared overwhelming. From his own lips we heard words of hate and of violence. We may indeed thank God on hearing of his death, but we need to qualify our thanks.
That his death might lead to greater peace in the world is something for which we should indeed give thanks. But for his death per se, I am not so sure we should be dancing for joy. If God does not desire the death of the wicked but that he should repent and live (Ezekiel 33:11), then perhaps that should be our approach too. Bin Laden’s death has in it the stuff of tragedy, for by any measure we could see in him one of the lost. Who knows but he may have repented in his last seconds? Who knows what experience in his life might have made him the practitioner of evil he became?
So we do well to pray that the Lord might have mercy on bin Laden. If we cannot do it for his sake, then we should do it for our own sake. When we pray for mercy on others, we are also building up our own case before the Lord that he might have mercy on us when we come finally before him. We have it from the Lord himself: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2) St James takes up the same topic, when he writes that “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
Both our Lord and St James speak in unconditional terms. Lest we be tempted to qualify these teachings by suggesting that there might be some who could be exempt from our mercy, we might ask ourselves where God will actually draw the line. Can we be certain that the line is drawn with bin Laden on the wrong side of it? Can we be certain that the line is drawn with us on the right side of it? What we do know is that in looking at the Cross we see that,
while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
We can be thankful bin Laden’s evil deeds are at an end; we should pray that those of his followers cease rapidly in the wake of his death; and we should pray that the Lord might have mercy on bin Laden, if only that he might have mercy on us.
To end, a story that seems fitting for both topics above. It is a story from Scott Hahn which has been providentially reproduced recently on the Roma Locuta Est blog. It says much about Blessed John Paul II, and much about the power of mercy.
A priest friend of Scott Hahn’s had returned from Rome and told Mr. Hahn this story. The priest was on his way to a private audience with the Pope but was running early. He thus decided to stop in a church to pray before his meeting.
On the steps of the church were a number of beggars, something fairly common in Rome. As he approached the church, the priest thought that he recognized one of the beggars. After entering the sanctuary he knelt down to pray, whereupon he remembered how he knew the man. The priest immediately rushed out and approached the familiar beggar exclaiming, “I know you. Didn’t we go to seminary together?”
The man gave a humble affirmative.
“So you are a priest then?” he said to the beggar.
The man replied, “Not anymore. I fell off the deep end. Leave me alone.”
The priest mindful of his approaching appointment with the Holy Father, said nothing more than, “I’ll pray for you.” The familiar man replied, “A lot of good that will do.”
With that, the priest left the man on the steps and departed for his meeting. These sorts of meetings with the Pope are typically very formal. There are any number of people who have been granted a private audience at the same time, and when the Holy Father makes his way around to you, his secretary hands him a blessed rosary, and he in turn hands it to you. At this point, one would probably kiss the Pope’s ring and say something heartfelt, yet almost generic, such as asking him to pray for you, telling him you are praying for him, or thanking him for his service to the Church. However, when Pope John Paul II approached, the priest couldn’t help himself and blurted out, “Please pray for my friend.” Not only this, but the priest continued to blurt out the entire story. The Holy Father, looking concerned, assured the priest that he would pray for his friend.
Later that day, the priest received a letter from the Vatican. Excited and curious, he rushed with the letter back to the church where he last saw his classmate. Only a few beggars were left, and as luck (or grace) would have it, his friend was among the few. He approached the man and said, “I have been to see the Pope, and he said he would pray for you as well.” The man listened.
“There’s more. He has invited you and me to his private residence for dinner.”
“Impossible,” said the man, “Look at me. I am a mess. I haven’t showered in God knows how long, and my clothes …”
Sensing the gravity of the situation (and understanding that this man was his admission ticket to have dinner with the Pope), the priest said, “I have a hotel room across the street where you can shower and shave, and I have clothes that will fit you.”
By the grace of God, the man agreed, and so the two of them were off to have dinner with Pope John Paul II. The hospitality was wondrous. Near the close of dinner, just before dessert, the Holy Father motioned to the priest who didn’t understand what the Pope was trying to say. Finally, the secretary explained, “He wants us to leave,” at which point the priest and the secretary left the Holy Father alone with the beggar.
After fifteen minutes, the man emerged from the room in tears. “What happened in there?” asked the priest.
The most remarkable and unexpected reply came. “He asked me to hear his confession,” choked the beggar.
After regaining composure, the man continued, “I told him, ‘Your Holiness, look at me. I am a beggar. I am not a priest.’ The Pope looked at me and said, ‘My son, once a priest always a priest, and who among us is not a beggar. I too come before the Lord as a beggar asking for forgiveness of my sins.’ I told him I was not in good standing with the Church, and he assured me that as the Bishop of Rome he could reinstate me then and there.”
The man then relayed that it had been so long since he had heard a confession that the Pope had to help him through the words of absolution. The priest asked, “But you were in there for fifteen minutes. Surely the Pope’s confession did not last that long.”
“No,” said his friend, “But after I heard his confession, I asked him to hear mine.”
Blessed John Paul II – pray for us.