Crossing the Threshold of Sanctity
The third longest reigning pope in history, John Paul II is also one of the most beloved. The unofficial cause for his canonization began almost immediately, with crowds spontaneously acclaiming, “Santo subito!” (“Sainthood now!”) at his funeral April 8, 2005. The official cause began only a month later, when Pope Benedict XVI waived the customary five-year waiting period on May 13.
The man appointed to guide the cause through the canonical process required by the Church was Msgr. Sławomir Oder. Born in Chełmża, Poland, and ordained shortly after the collapse of communism in 1989, Msgr. Oder has spent most of his priesthood in Rome. He is the author of Why He Is a Saint: The Life and Faith of Pope John Paul II and the Case for Canonization (Rizzoli, 2010).
Columbia recently spoke with Msgr. Oder about the sanctity and legacy of the world’s first Polish pope. The original interview was conducted in Polish with the assistance of Knights of Columbus staff.
Columbia: What significance does John Paul II’s canonization have for the Church today and for the new evangelization?
Msgr. Oder: Each saint is a gift for the Church. John Paul II used to say that a saint in the Church both disconcerts and comforts us. A saint disconcerts us by showing how far we still have to travel on our path to sanctity, and comforts us by saying that no path to holiness is too far for us.
John Paul II amazed me by the way he realized his love for Christ through concrete love, and through his devotion to the Church. Thus, we priests certainly have a most beautiful model of priesthood to follow. Yet the personality of John Paul II was so rich and versatile he was a Renaissance man, a man of intellectual depth with manifold interests. One can find in him an example for people seeking the truth, for people seeking dialogue, for people in positions of power. In addition, sick and elderly people find in him an example of the special vocation of suffering, the path of illness, the path of old age, and they use it as a chance to say their own “Here I am” to Christ. So it seems to me that the canonization of John Paul II will strengthen the faith of a wide variety of people in their vocation to sanctity.
Let us also bear in mind that John Paul II, throughout his long pontificate, worked to implement the authentic teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Because of this, his canonization will certainly put renewed attention on the Church’s task of living the council.
Columbia: Pope Benedict waived the ordinary five-year waiting period to open the cause of John Paul II’s canonization. How do you respond to people who say that the process occurred too swiftly?
Msgr. Oder: Five years is the time period set by the canon law of the Church to verify a person’s so-called reputation for holiness (fama sanctitatis). John Paul II’s reputation for holiness was never in doubt, for it was deeply established in the consciousness of the Church and in society in general. As a result, Pope Benedict dispensed with this five-year waiting period. However, all the other regulations relating to the canonical process had to be strictly observed. Therefore, it cannot be said that there was any form of leniency in the canonization process.
Let us also remember that, apart from the time of listening to personal testimonies and collecting records, the element that sets the rhythm of the canonization process is above all a sign received from God in the form of a miracle. In John Paul II’s case, we received this sign at the beginning of the process. Just a few weeks after it had started, we were informed about Sister Marie Simon-Pierre’s healing from Parkinson’s disease. Then, on the very day of the beatification, a Costa Rican woman suffering from a brain aneurism was healed. [Both miraculous healings were attributed to John Paul II’s intercession.] In this way, God gave us the signs to continue.
Columbia: John Paul II stressed the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness and canonized more saints than all of his predecessors in the previous three centuries combined. What did his canonization process reveal about his own personal holiness and heroic virtue?
Msgr. Oder: What John Paul II expressed through those beatifications and canonizations is that the Church is able to inspire holiness and awaken saints. What would be the purpose of the Church if, living the word of Christ and the sacraments, the sons and daughters of the Church did not become saints?
What touched us the most in his personal sanctity was the ordinariness of that sanctity, meaning that he experienced every single moment with exceptional intensity. What touched me personally in my encounter with John Paul II was the depth of his prayer, the mystical dimension present in his life. That mysticism was not a detachment from the world; these were not visions, ecstasies. It was the ability to live in the presence of God, experiencing every single gesture, every decision entirely with reference to God, to Christ. It was a continual dialogue with God, a dialogue of love, which was realized in his everyday life, meeting with people, making decisions and personal choices.
The other element that struck me was the poverty of John Paul II. He was truly a man of God. He lived a very modest life, a very poor life because he was a free man. His freedom stemmed from his relationship with God. He himself said that the man who stands before God is free. He was free from himself and from tangible goods, and could therefore preach the Gospel without fear, without any compromises. He gave himself to others, to the Church until the very end.
Columbia: When did Cardinal Wojtyła first become acquainted with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger later, Pope Benedict XVI both personally and with regard to his work? What influence did Ratzinger and his thought have on him?
Msgr. Oder: Karol Wojtyła was named cardinal by Paul VI in 1967, while Cardinal Ratzinger received the cardinal’s hat in 1977, one year before Paul VI’s death. Although they had both attended the Second Vatican and were familiar with each other’s work, their first opportunity to meet was at the conclave following the death of Paul VI. It was there, while talking about the future of the Church and the successor of Paul VI, that they got to know each other and had a spontaneous rapport. After the death of John Paul I, John Paul II as the newly elected pontiff soon wanted to have Cardinal Ratzinger near him for theological and dogmatic support, as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
It is difficult to say how their thinking influenced one another. Their ideas and vision of the Church were very convergent, and their reading of the challenges faced by the Church after the Second Vatican Council was very similar. It would be better to refer to the interpenetration and synthesis of their ideas that took place during their day-to-day work together, very often in meetings for the good of the Church.
Columbia: How did he come to the point of developing his “theology of the body” and the decision to start the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family?
Msgr. Oder: His “theology of the body” developed from his philosophical and anthropological interests, primarily in the pastoral dimension. As a young priest in Kraków, Karol Wojtyła was responsible for pastoral work with young people and health services. His student ministry work at St. Florian’s Church, his summer vacations on the Masurian Lakes, and religious retreats for couples preparing for marriage were the places where many of his ideas crystallized. The fruits of these experiences became the book Love and Responsibility [first published in Polish in 1960]. As pope, he further developed his reading of the truth about man, revealed in Jesus Christ. This relates in a special way to his great cycle of Wednesday catecheses (1979-1984), dedicated precisely to the “theology of the body.”
Out of these vital concerns emerged the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which was founded in 1981. With all certainty, it is a very lively institute, very relevant. Let us remember that the problem of the family was fundamental for John Paul II. And his message to families is a response to the reality we are witnessing. This is to say that the crisis of society manifests itself in a special way through the crisis of the family. John Paul II’s teachings, preserved in the heritage of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, is a response to this crisis.
John Paul II also founded the Pontifical Council for the Family. He signed the decree establishing this council on May 9, 1981, and wanted to personally announce the establishment of both the institute and council during the audience on May 13, which was the date of the assassination attempt. In a sense, then, the struggle of John Paul II for the truth about man, for the truth about marriage and the family, was sealed in his blood. I see it as symbolic.
Columbia: In your opinion, what were some of the most significant or unique hallmarks of John Paul II’s pontificate?
Msgr. Oder: His pontificate was primarily an expression of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II is a faithful son of the Church as defined by the Council Fathers.
His pontificate was also marked from the beginning by evangelical openness to the contemporary world. His inaugural homily contained the programmatic proclamation: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ.” This is the Church which is not afraid or defensive, but which carries hope to all who are lost. It seems to me that this powerful element of hope was also revealed in his intuitive desire and ability to dialogue with young people, which found expression in the establishment of the World Youth Days.
Thus, I would say that it was a very joyful, open, creative pontificate. At the same time, it was a pontificate that looked squarely into the eyes of contemporary man, who suffers and does not find all the answers to his questions within himself. And so it was a pontificate of truth about man the truth revealed by Christ, the only Savior and Redeemer of man.
Columbia: What influence did John Paul II have on his successors? How have Benedict and Francis built on the developments of John Paul II?
Msgr. Oder: Certainly, both Benedict and Francis lived many years observing John Paul II. Pope Benedict mentioned his admiration of John Paul II a number of times, referring to his personal sanctity, his evangelical openness, his ability to face the challenges of the world. Pope Francis, in turn, emphasized how John Paul’s Marian devotion influenced his own devotion and how John Paul’s sanctity inspired his own choices and desire for perfection.
It seems to me that in this sequence of three popes, we see the Church that wishes to take Christ “to the peripheries,” to use the language of Pope Francis. John Paul II had to face geopolitical peripheries: the division of the world into the east and the west, regimes versus democracy, militant atheism versus Christian tradition. Pope Benedict was taking the Gospel to the intellectual peripheries of the world: the challenges of secular culture, atheism in its new forms, relativism. Pope Francis continues to follow this path of evangelizing the existential peripheries: poor people, immigrants, people who are marginalized.
With all certainty, there is continuity, the continuity of Christ’s love, which manifests itself through Peter’s service.
Columbia: How do you think Catholics will view St. John Paul II 100 years from now, or even 500 years from now? What will be his legacy?
Msgr. Oder: When we look back, I think we will see him as the pope who lived and implemented Vatican II. In Poland, we will see him as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of Poles. John Paul II himself once said that he would like to be remembered as a pope of life and a pope of families I think this is how John Paul II will also be perceived, as a defender of dignity with a profound message concerning the truth about man, about the family, about life. It is not a plain humanism alone but rather Christian humanism, because John Paul II read the truth about man through the perspective of the incarnation of the divine Word, Jesus Christ. This is the great message from John Paul II: a positive view of man, revelation of the truth about human dignity, and greatness through the encounter with Christ.
Columbia: What would it mean to be a follower of St. John Paul II and his spirituality?
Msgr. Oder: The most characteristic feature of John Paul II’s sanctity is his union with Christ, his ability to look at another human through the prism of Christ. During the beatification process, I heard this many times and in many ways from people who had met him: He was able to see in each human being believer or non-believer, saint or sinner the image and likeness of God.
To be a follower of St. John Paul II means primarily to be deeply rooted in the love of God and to look at others, at friends and adversaries alike, as made in the image and likeness of God. It is precisely by seeking whatever is good, beautiful and noble in man that one can build a new humanism, a new future for man.