First, an anecdote. I was intrigued to hear that the Divine Mercy devotion, which underpins Divine Mercy Sunday, had a rather uneven path towards recognition. The bishop of Vilnius originally approved the devotion in the 1930s, but when the diaries of Sister Faustina were sent to Rome in the 1950s, so badly were they translated that their contents apppeared unorthodox and they ended up on the Index of Forbidden Books. Only a subsequent reappraisal in the 1970s, backed by Karol Wojtiya, then Archbishop of Krakow, led to the devotion's new approval and its subsequent rise to such prominence. Thereafter, Blessed John Paul II appointed the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday.
The idea that this devotion was once dead and buried, only to be resurrected, has this morning brought me some consolation after the beatification yesterday. For yesterday, as the ceremony unfolded and Pope Benedict delivered his sermon, something became clear which various voices had been denying for the last few weeks: that the beatification would inevitably stand as a stamp of approval on Vatican II as implemented by John Paul II. Honest defenders of John Paul had been pleading the case that this beatification was only a statement about his heroic virtue and sanctity. This argument was always weak, notably because he spent the last twenty-seven years of his life as Bishop of Rome.
But yesterday Pope Benedict set out for us in his sermon the way in which the Council's implementation and John Paul's legacy are intertwined:
This was his message: man is the way of the Church, and Christ is the way of man. With this message, which is the great legacy of the Second Vatican Council and of its “helmsman”, the Servant of God Pope Paul VI, John Paul II led the People of God across the threshold of the Third Millennium, which thanks to Christ he was able to call “the threshold of hope”.
And with these words, I'm afraid I heard the creaking lock of history turn in the door behind which stand those who demand a reappraisal of the Council's legacy. For how can one now interrogate the legacy of the Council, as interpreted by John Paul, without mounting an assault on his status as beatus? The beatification yesterday plucked an extraordinary and undoubtedly holy man out of his historical cursus and invested his memory with an eschatological dimension.
Not only did the lock turn in the door of history, the spirit of John Paul now stands before it. Question the implementation of the Council under John Paul and you must more or less question the one now beatified as God's providentially appointed guide who led the Church from the second into the third millenium. Question the implementation of the Council under John Paul and you must attack the rhetorical insufficiencies and doctrinal gaps of a Council which he held to be an unimpeachable treasure for the Church. Bruno Gheradini, Romano Amerio, Athanasius Schneider? There was, for me, something about yesterday's ceremony which took the analytic charts such individuals have recently attempted to draw and ripped them into the confetti which floated across Saint Peter's Square.
And what of the SSPX whose talks with Rome are sinking into the sand? Bishop Fellay remains upbeat in his most recent interview with Una Voce. At the same time the SSPX has just published a new book by Abbé Patrick de la Roque which casts many doubts on the beatification of John Paul II. Now, as usual there is no sign of the SSPX analysis providing a comprehensive review of the questions addressed. But, their questions are pertinent! Here are just a few:
The beatification of John Paul II, the pope of Assisi, is deeply perplexing and raises serious questions. Henceforth, must it be considered virtuous to receive, after John Paul II's example, the sacred ashes of Shiva? To go and pray, according to the Jewish custom, at the Wailing Wall? To recognise, by the ritual gesture of a kiss, that the Qu'ran is the word of God, or again to implore Saint John the Baptist to protect Islam? Or to go and practise animist ceremonies in the forests of Togo?
Now, let us not take these questions at face value. We really need an ethnographer's analysis of these actions before we accept the theologian's judgment thereon. Judgments made from outside a culture can sometimes be rather ill informed. A Protestant watching a Catholic priest genuflect three times to the wood of the cross on Good Friday (in the Old Rite) could easily think we Catholics, who genuflect only once to the Blessed Sacrament, really do worship idols. Still, since such actions by JPII were not isolated but programmatic features of his conduct as pope, we cannot simply explain them away as peripheral details of an otherwise holy life. Indeed, such actions are often described as examples of his daring and courage by his advocates.
Of course, the great weakness of the SSPX's position is that their focus on these questions unsights them with respect to the rest of John Paul II's legacy. I have yet to read de la Roque's book, but unless it breaks with the usual traditionalist approach, it will have little to say about Blessed John Paul's writings and example concerning the priesthood, personal prayer, the Blessed Sacrament, the rosary, the Divine Mercy, the fall of communism, the theological refutation of contraception, etc. Archbishop Lefebvre even labelled John Paul a communist-loving politician in his prologue to The Spiritual Itinerary, a frankly stupid thing to say for a man comfortable in his purblind, self-righteous Petanism while Karol Wojtila went toe-to-toe with Moscow's vicious commissars.
In any case, as I say, yesterday's ceremony signified the turning of the lock. The canonization - for canonization there will almost certainly be - will be the bolts and chains upon the door. Pope Benedict, a man normally open to dialogue, has unwittingly sealed up this corridor. People can footle around the door with talk of improved translations, more reverence and oodles of incense if they like. Good luck to them. But the radical interrogation of the Council which might have reshaped ecumenical relations and corrected the all too frequent syncretism of inter-religious dialogue? Forget it.
At least for now. For just as Sister Faustina's legacy spent years in disgrace, perhaps it will be necessary for another generation to pass away before a reappraisal can be considered. Perhaps John Paul's cause will stall at this stage. Perhaps his further elevation might, in a generation or two, not signify the stamp of approval on his interpretation of the Council which it now undoubtedly does.
And there again, at last, is another sign of the folly of a hasty beatification. How could this rushed beatification not appear as a stamp of approval on JPII's papacy, especially since so many who played a role in that papacy have been the agents of the beatification process, or its front-row witnesses?
I received an email from an old friend yesterday that bespoke the profound pain of traditionalists on this day. The only words I can find for him are these:
'Brother, believe in the Church. Believe in the power of the resurrection, in spite of all the appearances of death. Believe in the God of surprises. And believe above all that our religion is not a fine art but a pilgrimage and a crucifixion. What else did we expect when we were baptised in the death of Christ? And pray to the new beatus who possessed more honesty, frankness, intelligence and devotion to Christ than all ranks of the neo-cons.