On Sunday, the Catholic world will rejoice as Pope Benedict XVI beatifies his predecessor Pope John Paul II. Six years ago, at John Paul II’s funeral Mass, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger preached that the most distinctive characteristic of the life of Karol Wojytla was that, from his earliest days, he responded to the Lord’s call to follow him as a faithful disciple and a zealous apostle. “Follow me,” Cardinal Ratzinger preached, was the “lapidary saying” that “can be taken as the key to understanding the message that comes to us from the life of our late beloved Pope John Paul II.”
That call of the Lord, and Wojtyla’s faithful and heroic response, is what unites all the aspects of his life, from his growing up in a pious home in Wadowice, to his reaction to the early deaths of his mother, only brother and father, to his resistance to Nazist and Communist wickedness as a young man, to his entering the clandestine seminary in Krakow, to his studies, acting, poetry, teaching, and pastoral work as a priest, to his service as a bishop and important contributor to the Second Vatican Council, to his vigorous assumption of the papacy and hope-filled survival of an assassination attempt, to his beautiful valedictory entrusting himself to the mercy of the Lord in his final years of suffering. His entire life was that of a faithful disciple following the Lord Jesus up close all the way across the threshold of the Father’s House.
He once told his authoritative biographer, George Weigel, that most people erred by trying to understand him only “from the outside,” from all that he did publicly on the biggest stage — the foreign trips, his role in the downfall of communism, his meetings with and influence on world leaders and events. “But I can only be understood from inside,” he confessed. To understand him from the inside means to seek to understand his core: that all of his motivations came from his Christian faith, that whatever fruit he produced in life came from being grafted onto Christ the Vine.
That’s why Sunday’s beatification is so significant. A beatification is not a posthumous honor given to a “papacy,” however historic and inspiring. It is a recognition by the Church that one of her members lived the theological virtues of faith, hope and love to an heroic degree and that God has confirmed that ecclesial assessment, so to speak, by the granting of a miracle — which only God can do — through prayers made to Him through that person’s direct intercession. The beatification process looked at John Paul II from the inside and is now proclaiming that from the inside John Paul II was truly a Christian hero, perhaps an ever greater one than the world thinks he was on the “outside.”
Sunday’s beatification is the dramatic exclamation point on what was John Paul II’s most important papal priority, because it is the Church’s essential and most crucial task. The Church exists for one reason and one reason only, to give glory to God, and the way the Church does that is by being God’s instrument to helping men and women grow fully into the image and likeness of God Himself. “Gloria Dei vivens homo,” St. Ireneus taught at the end of the second century: “the glory of God is man fully alive.” The way human persons become fully alive is through receiving God’s gifts of salvation and sanctification offered lavishly by the Church Christ himself founded.
Over the course of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II beatified 1,338 men and women and canonized 482, more than all his predecessors since the reform of the process of canonization combined. He raised to the altars not merely martyrs, founders of religious orders, bishops, priests, nuns and other religious, but married couples, people from various professions and even young children. His whole pontificate was an attempt to incarnate the fundamental teaching of the Second Vatican Council, that “all in the Church … are called to holiness.”
John Paul II wrote in his pastoral plan for the third Christian Millennium, Novo Millennio Ineunte (2001), that the Church is essentially a vocational school meant to train people to become true saints, just as the various vocational-technical high schools in our Diocese train students to become carpenters, electricians, cooks and plumbers. “I have no hesitation,” he stressed, “in saying that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness.” By this he did not mean just preaching, celebrating the sacraments, prayer and works of mercy must be connected to the work of sanctification, but also Catholic education, health care, social justice work, Catholic Charities Appeals, RCIA ministry, rectory and chancery office activities, and the setting of budgets. Everything the Church does must be related to divinizing the human person.
He made this point because at a concrete level in many aspects of personal and ecclesial life, regardless of whether it’s theoretically acknowledged, it’s not lived out concretely. “It is necessary therefore,” he emphasized, “to rediscover the full practical significance of Chapter 5 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, dedicated to the ‘universal call to holiness.’” The call to become a saint must be made practical, it has to “become a task that must shape the whole of Christian life.” John Paul II sought to illustrate the practical aspects of holiness in his beatifications and canonizations of so many “who attained holiness in the most ordinary circumstances of life.” He tried to show the practical steps toward holiness in his own life of prayer and piety. But he also recognized that, just as singers, athletes artisans and professionals need both teaching and training, the Church as mater et magistra, mother and teacher, has to make sure that all the faithful recognize that they’re called to true spiritual greatness in their day-to-day life and to provide them an adequate training to help them achieve that holy grandeur.
He first sought to challenge those Christians who think that the Christian life is compatible with “a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity,” saying that baptism is an introduction into the holiness of God and sets a Christian on a trajectory to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He also challenged those who misunderstand the ideal of Christian perfection as “some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few ‘uncommon heroes’ of holiness.” We don’t need to wear a hair-shirt, fast on bread and water for years, learn ancient Hebrew, flee to a desert monastery, or spend eight hours a day or more in Eucharistic adoration. He said, rather, that the “ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual,” when one unites his or her whole life to Christ. “The time has come,” he insisted, “to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.”
After clarifying that the standard of the Christian life is not just to pass the final exam of life with a passing grade of D+, but to strive with God’s help, to get an A+ and make the eternal honor roll, John Paul said that the Church must provide a “genuine training in holiness, adapted to people’s needs.” Among the many resources in the treasure chest of spiritual help offered by the Church — sacraments, the Word of God, retreats, approved movements, magisterial documents and so much more — he highlighted six in particular, encouraging all Catholics to open themselves to receive all they contain: grace, prayer, the Mass, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, listening to the Word of God, and proclaiming the word of God in word and deed. These means of holiness are offered to everyone in the Church, from someone just baptized at the Easter Vigil to the Pope himself. Pope John Paul II sought to take full advantage of them throughout his entire life and on Sunday we see the fruit of that receptivity and response.
The Church, while always remaining a hospital for sinners, exists to be a school of saints, meeting us wherever we are at and training us to respond all the way to Christ’s call “Follow me!” in the day-to-day circumstances of our life. Let us ask Blessed John Paul II to intercede for us that we may make fully practical — in our own lives, in our parishes, in our diocese and in all our pastoral planning — this call to holiness he spent his pontificate echoing and enfleshing throughout the world.