I published this piece back in January 2011. With the announcement this past week by Pope Francis that he is moving the canonization of John Paul II forward, Eugene Kennedy's fine statement is on my mind again, and I want to share this item again. Here's what I wrote in 2011:
Eugene Kennedy's reading at National Catholic Reporter this week of what the beatification of John Paul II will signify for many Catholics is thought-provoking. And, as with everything Kennedy writes, masterfully written.
Kennedy adopts psychotherapeutic categories of analysis, especially the category of narcissism, to put his finger on what troubles many of us about the precipitous haste to beatify and then canonize JPII. He notes that the previous pope certainly appealed to audiences that were receptive to his rock-star image. On some young Catholics, in particular, the rock-star pope exerted mesmerizing influence through his adroit use of theatrical skills and his ability to project a stage persona.
But for many others, it was precisely that image and that ability to put on a mask and play a role that were troubling. Kennedy writes,
Are there unanswered questions about this pope who may have dazzled but seemed to exude so little real warmth for the believers at whom, above his Slavic smile, he never seemed to look directly?
What was the inner man -- for this must be the testing point for the blessed -- like when, claiming to be a champion for personalism, he preached of human personality as divided rather than united? What was he like when, in his romantic but self-contained reflections on human sexuality, he spoke so abstractly but with such certainty that abstaining from sex was the highest ideal even for married couples?
Who was this man who sang the glories of the Blessed Mother but who kept real women beyond the end of his wagging finger and was determined, as if the fate of the world depended on it, to keep them out of the priesthood? Who was this man who always defended Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, but who absented himself from the final vote of the Vatican II commission that recommended a broadening of the church’s position on birth control?
Who was this man who looked away from the burgeoning sex abuse scandal of his clergy while he sheltered and defended the godfather of all sex abusers, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado? Who was he when he welcomed Cardinal Law to a Roman sinecure after Law was forced to resign from the archbishopric of Boston for his manner of dealing with sex abusing priests?
A man who looked away: a man who looked away when he smiled, so that his eyes appeared not to see those at whom he was smiling, the real human beings; a man who looked away when women asked him to see what being second-class citizens in a church that denies them ordination means for their real human lives; a man who looked away when lay Catholics asked him to engage in dialogue about how, no matter what Rome says, a huge majority of married Catholics are using contraceptives and will continue to do so, and the resistance of the church's top leaders to dialogue about this matter is scandalous. And, finally, a man who turned his head and averted his eyes as the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr. Marcial Maciel, sexually molested one seminarian after another, fathered children and maintained them and their mothers in secret, using his community's funds to do this, abused narcotics, and, it's now known, raped his own children.
And here's the problem, of course: many of us don't want an icon of holiness for our church today who looks away, in the face of human need and human problems. We want pastors who are human, who can engage our human faces with their human faces, face to face, eye to eye. We want--we desperately need--pastors who will walk among us, hearing our voices, listening to our concerns and to what we have to say. We don't want, we don't need, rock stars on stages lit by bright lights, far removed from us.
We try to imagine Jesus in all of this--in the looking away, in the self-absorption on a stage, in the smiles that aren't really smiles and the performance that masks the real human being behind the mask--and our imagination falters. Because the Jesus about whom we read in the gospels wasn't on a stage. He wasn't self-absorbed. He was among the crowds, imminently approachable, so approachable that he gave himself away over and over again.
As he listened to those in need, wept with them, let them touch him, and invited them--everyone, and especially the outcasts of his world--to table. As he repudiated the class system of his culture and priestly caste, which placed women beyond the pale, because of their menstrual impurity, so that no respectable rabbi would invite a woman, let alone one accused of immorality, to his table. For fear that her ritual pollution would pollute him, the teacher.
For many of us, John Paul II does not point the way to holiness for the church today. Made a saint, he will not be a symbol of holiness that charts the course for the church of the world in which we live today. He will, instead, be a countersign, someone whose very remembrance points back to a model for holiness in the church of our period that thwarts the effective engagement of church with world. Many of us remember the previous pope as a pope who called on us to pretend that all holiness in creation is found only in the church, and that the world is entirely full of sin--at the very moment in which we began to discover the depths of corruption within our church and its pastoral leaders, who had been hiding abusive priests and sending known molesters of children back into parishes to abuse again.
The canonization of John Paul II is, of course, a foregone conclusion. It always has been, because John Paul belongs to (in the sense that the Vatican and Catholic leaders have been bought by) a number of powerful and very wealthy right-wing Catholic groups who intended, from the outset, to secure his canonization. Groups that have the backing of powerful and very wealthy right-wing political donors in the secular sphere in many places. Canonization is every bit as much a political process as it is a religious one. And money talks in political processes.
So the previous pope will most certainly be canonized, no matter how much the haste to declare him a saint causes pain to many Catholics--whose voices do not and will not count in this matter. I predict, however, quite a bit more pain to come from this canonization, some of it unforeseen right now.
One of the hazards of rushing anyone to sainthood with unseemly haste is that the jury is often still out about aspects of that person's life, while people still living have pieces of information about him or her that may not yet have come to light. I think we have yet to see or hear all that might be disclosed about John Paul's leadership of the church during the dark period in which the abuse crisis finally came to light. And I suspect that some of what we will begin to hear after the beatification in May will not prove flattering at all for the legacy of the saint-to-be.
This canonization process is dividing the church even more than it is already divided, at a point in history in which it can least stand to be divided. And the imminent beatification of JPII will only drive the wedge deeper, producing more pain in a church in which the pain of unresolved issues--issues from which John Paul averted his face--is already all around.