Work of a Saint
Why We Love John Paul II
BY Edward Pentin
May 22-June 4, 2011 Issue | Posted 5/13/11 at 5:41 PM
Americans overwhelmingly admire the late Pope John Paul II and agree that he is worthy of beatification, according to a new survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus.
Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, was in Rome for the beatification of Pope John Paul.
Anderson is the author of five books, including A Civilization of Love: What Every Catholic Can Do to Transform the World and Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Pope John Paul appointed him a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life in 1998 and the Pontifical Council for the Laity in 2002, and a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2003.
He spoke with Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin.
What do you most hope Catholics and non-Catholics will take away from this beatification?
I hope that, really, the beatification accomplishes its purpose, which is to say that in holding John Paul II up as a model of Christian life, a model of heroic virtue, Catholics and others will see in that model someone they want to emulate. He was a man who showed us a Christian way of life. He forgave the man who tried to kill him. He looked for forgiveness for things that had occurred in the past. He tried to be a reconciler with Jews, Muslims. It was clear he was a man who, in so many ways, tried to love his neighbor — that model of what it means to be a Christian.
I remember seeing him at Masses early on in his pontificate, and he started this tradition of inviting sick and handicapped people to be close to him at Mass. And then after Mass he’d take a few minutes to greet each of them individually. Those kinds of things: going beyond what was expected to really show how Christians should be living. So I hope that people, if they’re watching the beatification, if they’re admiring John Paul II, that they’re emulating some of this way of living.
In terms of the world today, what aspects of his life and teachings would be most applicable and relevant?
One of the things the beatification will encourage is not to let his pontificate recede into history, but for people to pay more attention to his writings, his ministry, because now it’s not only simply a historical period in the life of the papacy, but it’s the work of a saint. And many Catholics and many people go back through history to read the lives of the saints for their own spiritual edification. So I hope that continues.
He really gave the universal Church a global vision of the importance of diversity within the Church in terms of different continents, different ethnicities, all having important roles within the Church. His vision of youth, of young Catholics, his idea of the Church being young and for there to be a role in the Church for young Catholics, I think, is extremely important. The Knights of Columbus helped sponsor a concert of reconciliation; the Pope was there, and Muslim and Jewish representatives were there. In his speech at the end, he said, “Love conquers all.” Coming through what happened in Poland, what happened in Warsaw in the Second World War, what happened under communism, if anybody had a right to be angry, to be vengeful, to want retribution, it is these people. But here is someone who keeps saying over and over again: “Reconcile. Let’s understand each other better.” And his final message is: “Love conquers all.”
And to create a “civilization of love,” which was a term he created.
Right, because there again, this is the genius of John Paul: to be talking so often about the civilization of love, because obviously you don’t have to be a Christian to love. Everybody is looking for an authentic experience of love, whether they are Christian or not. But from the Christian perspective, in Jesus you have the greatest example of what that means. So here’s a way of being true to your own identity and yet reaching out to others in a way that we can cooperate and build something together that doesn’t require you to give up your tradition or identity but allows me to preserve mine. It gives us a bridge through which to work together. So it’s not just to say John Paul II was trying to build bridges, but trying to build bridges in a way that could last, that could work.
Your recent survey (see “Fact of Life” on page B1) showed that American Catholics and non-Catholics have a great esteem for John Paul II. He had a lot of admiration for the U.S. as well. What is it at the root of the mutual respect between John Paul II and Americans?
I think maybe three things. First, as a Pole, like so many of his countrymen for so many years, [he] looked to the United States as a beacon of hope; and then the United States came true and was that beacon of hope. It didn’t let Poland down in the end, so that’s No. 1.
John Paul II admired greatly the commitment to freedom in the United States and not only the commitment to freedom within the boundaries of the country, but to reach out. I think he also admired greatly the Judeo-Christian foundation of American society. So I think when you look at those three things, you can see why he felt such a bond with the United States.
Also, although we don’t think of America as one of the large Catholic countries of the world because Catholics are a minority, there are still 69 million Catholics in the United States, making it the fifth- or sixth-largest Catholic country in the world. So it’s very important what happens in the United States, in terms of the Catholic Church.
What is your view of the criticisms of the beatification — that some say it was rushed or that John Paul shouldn’t be beatified because of questions over his governance of the Church?
Well, I was there at his funeral when people started chanting “santo subito.” I might have been chanting it too. Look, I think the judgment of the world on that day was that we’ve seen this person for 26 years; we’ve gotten to know him; we see what he’s like. And in the eyes of the world, I think they felt santo subito was accurate and true.
What doesn’t concern me is the speed so much, because I think whether you had the five-year wait or not, what’s five years? If you had the five-year waiting period or you didn’t have it, what’s important is whether the procedures were followed, that careful attention was paid to the questions that are asked during the process. And if those were met — and I believe they were — I think the beatification is fine. I don’t see a problem with the timing of it. In fact, I think it’s good that we have it sooner rather than later because of the expectation of people and the great model that he is for people.
No. 2, the beatification is not about whether he was an effective pope or the best administrative pope; it was about him as a person, about his living a Christian life and whether, on a personal level, he exemplified that heroic virtue.
What would be his most urgent appeal today, in terms of the world situation?
It’s very interesting, because his message for the World Day of Prayer for Peace in 2001 — and we know what happened later in 2001 — was to be a craftsman for building a civilization of love, where you have respect, reconciliation, greater understanding of working together among people. I think he’d be saying that over and over again this year. For the Middle East certainly, but also for how we find our way out of the economic crisis that we have in the world, how we deal with globalization. So I think much of what he was saying has greater relevance today, not less relevance.
What would you say is the greatest fruit of his pontificate today?
If I could maybe put two together which are the same, in a way: He’s John Paul the Great because of the great renewal of the Church that’s occurring because of him and his leadership. I remember seeing him at the Mass on the Mall when he came to Washington in 1979, when he said where there is injustice we will stand up, a sense of empowerment, a sense of responsibility. And clearly that happened in Poland; I think it happened in the United States; it happened in Cuba; it happens in every place he goes, and he lives this sense that the Church is alive, that Christianity is alive. It’s dynamic, empowering, and we have got to not be afraid, but go forward and do in the world what we’re called to do.
It’s interesting that almost every dictator he met, or dictatorship he encountered, would fall pretty much soon afterwards.
Yes, for them it wasn’t a good thing, though they might have thought it was a good thing at the time! And I think, too, of course, this is at the heart of the beatification process: You don’t measure him by his geopolitical accomplishments. On the other hand, when he came to Warsaw and gave that great speech in Victory Square, and at the end of it, he said: “Send forth your spirit to renew the face of the earth,” then he said, “and this land.” He didn’t come with a political agenda; he came with the central message of Christianity. So he really was reflecting for the world the fundamental truth of his own life, which was his Christian faith and the power that has to change things for the better — not by means of a political platform, but what he was talking about: building a civilization of love, having a sense of responsibility, of solidarity and of caring for other people.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
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