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May 1, 2014
Popes John XXIII and
John Paul II Are Saints

By Mike McManus

For the first time the Catholic Church consecrated two former Popes as saints: John XXIII and John Paul II before a crowd of perhaps 2 million. Both were giants on the world stage.

John XXIII, who was pope from 1958-63, is best known for calling the Second Vatican Council of the world’s bishops who he asked to “open the widows” of the church to the modern world. One reform allowed the Mass to be spoken in local languages, rather than Latin.

Earlier in his career, as a papal nuncio (ambassador) to Istanbul in World War II, he gave false documents to Jewish refugees seeking transit to Palestine, saving thousands. One biographer said he saw Jews as “the relatives and fellow countrymen of Jesus.”

Similarly, John Paul II was the first Pope to visit a synagogue, and issued public apologies for church sins against Jews, gypsies and other victims of the Holocaust (against the advice of his cardinals).

His greatest achievement was a singular role in the collapse of European communism. First, he helped his native Poland break free of Soviet control, followed by Czechoslovakia and East Germany in 1989. “John Paul demonstrated in action that Christian conviction can be the agent of human liberation,” wrote George Weigel in “Witness to Hope.”

He also opened ecumenical dialogue between the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and nearly as many Protestants, Orthodox, Anglicans and independents. When elected in 1978, he was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, and served till 2005, one of the longest pontificates in history.

In his first two decades he made 84 foreign pilgrimages, giving 3,000 sermons and addresses, speaking to hundreds of millions. He sparked new codes of canon law and the first Catechism of the Catholic Church in 400 years and was also a prolific writer whose works stretch 10 feet on a shelf. “It is plausible to argue that the pontificate of John Paul II has been the most consequential since the sixteenth century Reformation,” Weigel concludes.

However, there is a dark cloud over his reign. “He failed miserably on the sexual abuse crisis” of priests who molested children, asserts Jason Berry, author of the pioneering 1992 book, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.” Berry says the pope “gave no leadership to the bishops as they were struggling with these cases.”

At the time his book was published, the church had lost $400 million in legal and medical costs from cases involving 400 U.S. priests. By 2000 that number grew to 1,000 priests and financial losses of $1 billion.

The scandal grew immeasurably in 2002 when The Boston Globe published 250 stories, many on page 1. That sparked research by many other newspapers and TV networks resulting in 12,000 stories of priestly sexual abuse.

“Catholics were stunned, then outraged,” wrote Peter Steinfels in “A People Adrift: the Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.” Within a year, Catholic church attendance slid 7% and the percentage of Catholics saying their faith is “very important” to them dropped from 61% to 49% (compared to 70% of Protestants).

Steinfels said the sex scandal occurred “because many church officials failed to prevent those crimes and do everything in their power to repair the harm, whether acting out of ignorance, naïve piety, misplaced trust, indifference to children, clerical clubbiness, fear of scandal, subservience to lawyers, concern for church assets…or downright complicity.”

A writer to the National Catholic Reporter said the bishops’ way of responding to accusations of sexual abuse “was to commit heinous crimes, with total disregard for the mental suffering of the victims, and to attempt to cover up the situation with money and coercion.”

The Pope should have not only insisted that priests accused of these crimes be turned over to the police to investigate, but also he should have fired the bishops who were complicit.

He did neither. The one step he took was to put full authority for overseeing the clerical abuse scandal under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. He did remove 3,000 priests from the priesthood.

However, not one bishop was fired. Indeed, when the Boston Globe articles exposed Boston Cardinal Bernard Law as an enabler of child abuse, he did resign. But Pope John Paul gave him sanctuary in Rome as the leader of a large cathedral.

Columnist Maureen Dowd wrote “John Paul may be a revolutionary figure in the history of the church, but a man who looked away in a moral crisis cannot be described as a saint.”

 

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