John Paul II is now “blessed”, according to the canon law of the RC Church. The ceremonies that took place in Rome between April 30th and May 1st were followed by a couple million people who were present in one or more of the events and celebrations, and by millions of people around the world who were watching on TV, or observed by means of other media outlets. It is true that the events in Rome were a bit overshadowed by the royal wedding in London, on the one hand, and the shooting of Bin Laden in Pakistan, on the other. The impression is that these two world events somewhat obscured the beatification of John Paul II, at least from a media point of view. The latter, however, was impressive and thought-provoking.
It so happens that I was not in Rome when the ceremonies took place. I was actually in the USA visiting churches and promoting Gospel work in Rome. For this reason I had the opportunity to observe the beatification from a distance, as most people would normally do. Instead of being an eye-witness and fully immersed in the events, I had the chance of being a distant observer with little internet access, some exposure to TV coverage, and only and quick perusal of one or two secular newspapers. In a sense, this is the way that most people would normally have access to Vatican events, and more generally to issues related to Roman Catholicism (grabbing some bullet points, listening to some catchwords, or watching some selected pictures, and that’s all). Little theological awareness, little help in grasping the big picture, and little analysis of what happened. Is this the way in which most Evangelicals form their evaluation of Roman Catholicism?
I was impressed by what I could not gather from a distance. Here are two main pieces of information that stood out to me as a “normal” busy person looking superficially at what took place in Rome.
A memorial service?
The first bit of information I picked up was that what took place in Rome had actually been a “memorial service” celebrating the political achievements, the charming personality, and the ecclesiastical success of John Paul II. The framework was the celebrity status applied to a global-scale religious figure. In a world in which few people deserve praise, John Paul II was commended as a “hero” of his time. A memorial service is something that is palatable to most people, Evangelicals included. There is nothing wrong in nurturing the memory of a person and treasuring the lessons of their life. This, however, is not the main thrust of the beatification. Beatification is a recognition by the RC Church that the person beatified can be presented to the faithful as an intercessor for their needs, worries, sickness, etc. The faithful are encouraged to pray the beatus in order to receive healing and protection. The faithful are encouraged to bow down before the beatus, to have sacred pictures of the beatus, and to develop a fully-orbed devotion for the beatus. In other words, beatification is a decision by the RC Church to add another mediator to the thousands that are already there. Beatification touches on the mediatorship of Jesus Christ. Christ alone is not sufficient in himself, but shares his mediator role with other figures that the RC Church recognizes as “blessed” (and then eventually “saints”). Notwithstanding RC uneasiness to acknowledge this, beatification is a subtraction from the sufficiency of Christ’s work and the full humanity of his person. The “blessed” is added to Christ. Therefore holding a “memorial service” is one thing, perhaps even compatible with basic Biblical teaching, though always in danger of paying too much tribute to the celebrity culture. Proclaiming beatus upon a person is very different in that it diverts the faithful away from Christ and towards the beatus himself. Unfortunately, the latter meaning was absent from what I could gather as a distant observer.
A Christ-centered message?
The other impression that was apparent from what I was exposed to was that the general tone of the celebrations was Christ-centered. Few quotations from Benedict XVI’s homily were mentioned and they seemed to refer to John Paul II’s relationship with Christ. The pope was praised as a “servant of Christ” and a “follower of Christ”. (By the way, these expressions are the same that Billy Graham uses in his forward of a picture book on John Paul II that was on display in the US airports’ bookshops). What the media failed to do, however, was to present the Marian framework which was the framework of the whole celebration. On Saturday night more than 300,000 people gathered for a Marian vigil of prayer, all singing totus tuus (“wholly yours”, the Pope’s motto expressing his devotion to Mary), and prayed to Mary all night. Moreover, the homily of Benedict XVI contained many references to the Marian spirituality of John Paul II, commending it to the faithful as the way to uphold Christian witness in today’s world. On Sunday the coffin of John Paul II and the relics of his blood were displayed in St. Peter’s square for veneration by the people. Had I not had a basic knowledge of RC and a bit of spiritual curiosity to go beyond the headlines, I would have had the impression that the beatification was indeed Christ-centered, which in actual fact was not.
The beatification of John Paul II was a reminder of several challenges that we all face. First, relying on the general media as a first point of reference to the reality and accuracy of events is often misleading. Second, relying on a superficial awareness of RC helps in developing a distorted picture of it, and as a result an inaccurate understanding emerges. Third, if most Evangelicals rely on the general media and on a superficial awareness of RC, it is not surprising that we are naive (to say the least) in our evaluation of it.
Leonardo De Chirico
Rome, 14th May 2011