When Pope Francis arrives here next week for World Youth Day, will he come as his predecessors did – Benedict XVI to honour John Paul II, and John Paul in turn to honour Paul VI? If he does not do so, he will further widen the rift with Catholics who are devoted to the sainted Polish pope. That there is a rift is beyond question.
It is spoken about openly in private, but rarely in public. It began with the decision, just a few months into the pontificate of Francis, to accelerate the cause of Blessed John XXIII – who did not have the requisite second miracle – in order to jointly canonise him with Blessed John Paul II, who not only had a second miracle, but plenty to spare.
If ever there was a contemporary Cause that deserved, as it were, a solo canonisation, it was that of John Paul, perhaps the most consequential historical figure of our time. Had Providence brought the two Causes to maturity at the same time, that would have been one thing, but it was altogether different to waive the requirements for John XXIII in order, it appeared, to diminish or to balance out the attention given to John Paul.
In different circumstances, something similar was done in 2000, when John Paul beatified John XXIII and Pius IX together, along with three others. Of course no rules were waived then, but it was widely accepted that John XXIII was the spoonful of sugar needed to make the medicine (Pius IX) go down. The decision of Pope Francis was poorly received by those who thought John Paul needed no such sweetener.
The actual canonisation exacerbated the problem. It was conducted in such an understated fashion as to come off rather flat, despite the enormous number of bishops who came from all over the world. Pope Francis said next to nothing about John Paul, and nothing about Poland at all, despite the immense number of Poles in Rome.
Most shocking of all, given prevailing Roman manners, the Holy Father had not a public word of thanks for Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz – Archbishop of Kraków and personal secretary to John Paul for 39 years – despite the canonisation falling on his 75th birthday. As Dziwisz reached the mandatory retirement age on the day that the man he served for his whole life was canonised, basic courtesy demanded an acknowledgement that he was entitled now to sing his Nunc dimittis, secure in the gratitude of the entire Church. Why Pope Francis did not extend that courtesy remains puzzling, but the slight is remembered. It all left the John Paul enthusiasts rather cool toward Francis.
That relationship would warm up, but in a combustible rather than affectionate way, with the two-year synod process, which had as its apparent aim the overturning of St John Paul’s teaching in Familiaris Consortio. After that goal did not achieve the support of the synod of bishops, despite two years of trying, Pope Francis issued Amoris Laetitia, which does not overturn Familiaris Consortio – there is too much deliberate ambiguity for that reading to be sustained – as much as it undermines the vision of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul’s 1993 encyclical on the moral life.
World Youth Day in Kraków, in the home city of the pope of Divine Mercy during the Jubilee of Mercy, offers Pope Francis the ideal opportunity to heal the breach. His host will be Cardinal Dziwisz at an event that is entirely the fruit of John Paul’s pastoral imagination. The model for taking advantage of the opportunity lies in following what John Paul himself did in 1979, and Benedict XVI in 2006.
John Paul had every right to return to Poland in 1979 as a conquering hero. He was not only a native son, but successor of the martyred Stanislaus, Bishop of Kraków, the royal and ancient capital of Poland. Yet he presented himself instead as the successor to Pope Paul VI, who had been denied permission to visit Poland by the communists in 1966 for the millennial celebrations of Poland’s baptism. At that time, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, primate of Poland, flanked by Karol Wojtyła, then-Archbishop of Kraków, celebrated the millennial Mass at Częstochowa in the presence of a great empty throne, representing the absent Blessed Paul VI.
In 1979, the throne of Peter in Poland was no longer empty, but John Paul began his first address in Poland – to the state authorities – by quoting Paul VI. His history-changing homily in Warsaw’s Victory Square later that day opened with John Paul casting himself as fulfilling the desire of Paul VI to come to Poland. Twenty-seven years later, Benedict XVI came to Poland explicitly to thank Poland for the gift of John Paul and to lift him up for the entire Church.
Francis can easily do the same, arriving in continuity with, and offering honour to, his great predecessor. It will be an excellent chance to heal the rift.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine.
This article first appeared in the July 22 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.