Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, is well acquainted with the soon-to-be St. John Paul II.
Cardinal Burke was consecrated to the episcopacy in 1995 by John Paul. Prior to that, the Holy Father named him the first American Defender of the Bond of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest ecclesiastical court in the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI named him cardinal in 2010 and gave him his current post.
Cardinal Burke discussed his personal memories of Pope John Paul II and the late pope’s immense impact on the Church that he shepherded for more than 25 years, on the eve of his canonization together with Pope John XXIII in Rome.
What are your recollections of John Paul II and your view on his legacy?
After the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, many people thought the encounter between faith and culture was a question of the faith accommodating itself to the culture, whereas, instead, John Paul II knew how to address the faith to the culture, to call the culture to be the best it could be, to be true to the teaching of Christ, to be transformed.
I’d say you could describe his entire pontificate this way. Through his tireless efforts of travels, teaching, so many writings and by addressing the tough issues, he came to the culture; he addressed the word of Christ through the culture for its transformation. That’s what people experienced.
He came to America several times and addressed very serious questions, whether they were religious life, Catholic education or the sacred liturgy. He did it with a personal encounter, personal witness and with very solid teaching.
Many say his best-known legacy was helping the fall of communism, but would you say his theology of the body or his standing against the culture of death will actually be seen as his most important work?
I believe that’s true … on every human heart is written a law, we call it the natural law, which teaches us that God made us this way to understand the truth of human life, about its inviolability, the truth about marriage and the family, the truth about conscience. His greatest teachings, one of the most spectacular documents he produced, was Evangelium Vitae (On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life). If you read it, you will find in there an exposition of the natural law, and, then of course, Our Lord speaks first through holy Scripture and then with the Incarnation, through God the Son. He [John Paul II] illumines all of that and helps us understand the depth of the truth that God has written on our hearts.
So yes, he had this tremendous influence, but the reason he was so powerful in defeating communism and these ideologies was because he was such an effective teacher of the truth, and the truth always exposes these kinds of ideologies where there are falsehoods and, therefore, the confusion and destruction which they cause.
Some media commentators have criticized him for his poor governance and say he wasn’t perfect and so shouldn’t be canonized. What do you say to this view?
He demonstrated to a heroic degree the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Was he perfect? No; no human being is. People criticize him for this or that, but notwithstanding whatever imperfections he may have had, he cooperated so heroically, to such a tireless degree, with the grace of God that he is a model for all of us in our lives. And if he were perfect, he wouldn’t be a model for us.
We’re not perfect, and if we thought he was a perfect human being, it’s wonderful, but there’s nothing there for us.
What do you think the impact of this canonization will be, in terms of the graces it might bring?
That’s inherent to a canonization, that, in the celebration of holiness, the drawing near to holiness, Our Lord himself grants many graces, but also those who are canonized saints intercede for many graces for the faithful. And people will be praying very intensely for the intercession of Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII, and there will be many favors granted. I don’t doubt it.
Do you foresee these graces possibly applied to bringing forth a culture of life, too?
I think in particular John Paul II, in all of his magisterium, started out his pontificate in a most courageous way. Paul VI, who had in 1968 taught the gospel of life with particular regard to contraception, faced a tremendous negative reaction and beating about it and struggled against this going forward for the rest of his pontificate.
St. John Paul II started his pontificate with four years of Wednesday audience talks dedicated to illustrating the teaching on contraception, and this is all connected, because what he was defending was the essential procreative nature of the conjugal act and, in this way, defending the inviolability of human life itself. Then he went on with the magisterial document on the gospel of life, Evangelium Vitae. People draw many things from his teaching, but I think that’ll be at the heart of it.
These two popes are very important with respect to the Second Vatican Council. Do you think problems that came after the Council will start dissipating and what the Council really meant to achieve will come into focus?
To the degree that people draw close to these two saints and their teachings, they will understand the fundamental impact of the Council as the Church, gifted with the grace and truth of the love of God himself, addressing itself to a world which has become very secularized and therefore hostile to the law of God and therefore hostile to the integrity of the human family and hostile to the conscience, natural moral law and disrespectful of it.
What is your favorite memory of him that is significant and relevant to helping us understand him?
I was blessed to see him on a number of occasions and to witness his teaching. I would have to say that, for me personally, it was the day of my own ordination as a bishop, on Jan. 6, 1995. He ordained me a bishop, together with nine other prelates, and I recall, in particular, the words of the homily he addressed specifically to each one of us. This was a mark of JPII. His word to me was about evangelizing the heartland of America. I was being sent back to my home diocese [La Crosse, Wis.], so I would have to say that was one.
Another memory that was very moving to me, when I became archbishop of St. Louis in November 2004, was the ad limina visit [the requirement that each bishop travels to Rome every five years to report to the pope on the status of his diocese].
We arrived in Rome on a Sunday morning, and we saw him at the Sunday Angelus, and he tried to speak, and I remember him pounding on the podium in his frustration. There were some people behind me from Italy, and they had this banner they were holding up, saying, "Your weakness gives us strength." I saw him in days that followed, and this man was giving us absolutely the last ounces of his life to carry out his office as Successor of Peter. He couldn’t say much to us, there were many frustrating moments for him, but the witness was very powerful.
His witness to suffering?
Yes, one of the most powerful teaching moments was his agony and dying and how the world followed that. The media is to be given a lot of credit for the way in which it made this present for people, but that transformed lives.
Two seminarians I admitted in the Archdiocese of St. Louis were both older vocations, and it was following the death and seeing his heroic witness of giving his life for the Church that these men finally said: “Well, I need to do that, too; that’s what I’m being asked to do.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.