Nobody is surprised by the declaration that Pope John Paul is to be beatified on May 1. It is almost a beatification by public acclaim: the cries of “Santo Subito” that went up in the streets of Rome at his funeral were a sign that his heroic virtue had become universally understood, not merely in his manner of dying, but for many years before that.
The Catholic Herald and the Catholic Truth Society, to mark the 25th anniversary of his papacy in 2003, had jointly published a collection of essays (which I edited) under the title John Paul the Great. When I read on Friday that his beatification had been announced I reread what I had written then. I quote here the last paragraph of my introduction, simply as one contemporary example of what had by then become the general perception. The pope’s poor health had led to calls for his resignation; how could someone suffering so much be expected to lead the Church? That was the question. But it was precisely his courage in the face of suffering which was so inspiring, which gave his leadership of the Church such huge spiritual power. This is what I wrote; and I think it is an accurate indication of what nearly everyone had come to understand:
Be not afraid: it has become almost the watchword for his papacy: not because he has obsessively repeated it for others to follow, but because he has lived it out himself. He is in constant pain; his hands shake with Parkinson’s disease; and still he does not spare himself. The older and more frail he becomes, the more his courage shines out, and the nearer his papal service comes to being a kind of living martyrdom. The word “indomitable” springs to mind; and for an Englishman of my generation that will tend to be followed by the word “Churchillian”: for surely in the spiritual warfare of our age this is one of the great heroes of the faith, not merely a great warrior himself, but an inspirer in others of the great knightly virtues of honour and courage and constancy and persistence to the end. In due course, it will be for the Church to declare if this has been the life of one of her saints: but certainly, by any human measure, his qualities have amounted to greatness of the highest order: it is surely very hard to believe that that will not be the verdict of history, too.
Pope Benedict has constantly referred to his greatness: he called him “the great Pope John Paul II” in his first address from the loggia of St Peter’s Church; he referred to him as “the Great” in his homily for the Mass of Repose, and has continued to refer to him in this way. This has also been a growing custom among the faithful; in the US, the names of the John Paul the Great Catholic University and other educational establishments have reflected it.
But greatness is not necessarily holiness: here, though, they are inseparable. And now the Church has, indeed, declared herself. On May 1, the first stage towards his eventual canonisation will take place. It is clear that the present Pope, who knew him so well, has given his cause a fair wind: but he has done no more than make possible what is very close to being a consensus fidelium.