Cor ad cor loquitur Print
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 02 May 2011

Living in Washington, I’ve seen many large public events in person: inaugurations, parades, demonstrations (the annual pro-life march, far and away, the most moving of these). This past weekend, I changed planes in London and watched on television as Wills and Kate, as they are called with affection, tied the royal knot quite elegantly in Westminster Abbey. But I’ve never witnessed anything quite like the beatification in Rome of John Paul II.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize winning Polish poet, believed that of all modern world leaders, only John Paul II was made of the stuff of Shakespearean kings. The crowds in Rome seemed to know that this weekend by sheer intuition.

I’ve been in Rome by chance when others have been beatified: in one ceremony, if I remember right, a Brazilian and an Austrian were simultaneously honored, and the streets were full of a strange mix of brightly dressed South Americans of various races and elegantly clad German-speakers, many of them wearing alpine hats with smart green feathers. Such juxtapositions are an always surprising and lovely part of belonging to a universal Church.

In 1998, I was in Havana the day the Holy Father said Mass for over a million people in the Plaza de la Revolución. The event itself was breathtaking, but as was typical of JPII’s efforts, it had great side benefits. There was a temporary painting of the Sacred Heart on the side of one of the government buildings in the square. The rector of the Cuban Baptist Seminary told me at the time: “See that. If that can happen, anything can happen.” He was right. The Cuban Catholic Church has been a force to be reckoned with ever since, despite the ongoing Communist dictatorship.

That was the kind of thing that often occurred during the Wojtyla papacy. If you were old enough in June 1979, you probably remember his trip home to Poland, which started a series of events that “changed the world.” People often use those words about relatively trivial things. But anyone who saw Polish ruler Wojciech Jaruzelski shaking alongside the Polish pope on a Warsaw balcony in front of millions of Poles could tell that something amazing would follow. And it did, as we know. Within a decade, Communism collapsed. “Be not afraid,” indeed.

Many Poles were in Rome yesterday. And they along with probably another million people were clearly proud of the worldly accomplishments of Poland’s most famous son. Big intellectual names like Hegel and Marx believed they had discovered the conceptual laws governing human history. But neither of them understood one thing: there are no such laws because human beings, under God, are free. And there’s no predicting what the Holy Spirit may do, even in our world, when some great soul decides to follow God.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, JPII’s press secretary, appeared on Italian television and was asked what the message was to the world in the fact of so many people coming from all over the globe to honor the new beato. In the past, Navarro-Valls had some rough patches in his relations with the media, but he spoke truly, from the heart Sunday. Though the pilgrims came from widely differing backgrounds, there were all united in thanking “a man who gave himself totally to whatever God asked – and it was a lot.” 

It’s impossible to convey the extraordinary atmosphere that took hold in St. Peter’s Square. But in spite of the crowds, there was something recollected and contemplative about it all. It happened also to be Labor Day and St. Joseph’s Day in Italy as well. A labor demonstration in Piazza del Popolo was, by contrast, quite bitter and ugly.In St. Peter's Square, though, as one reporter commented, you could have heard a fly buzz by, if there had been one. Clearly, the people who came – many of whom slept in the streets all night for a distant glimpse of the Mass – were not there just for some political figure. The phrase you heard most often from them was about the “transparent” goodness and spirit of a singular man.

Pope Benedict concluded in his typically thought-provoking homily with the memory of the person who had so often blessed the crowds in that very square and asked him to continue to protect and bless the whole Church.

Compared with all this, the criticisms of John Paul II from various quarters seem like so much carping. Did bad things happen during his papacy? Yes. Did he fix everything that was wrong with the Church? No. People who make such criticisms confuse sainthood and perfection. St. Peter denied Christ Himself three times, right after promising not to. St. Paul helped persecute and kill Christians. Yet it is out of such all-too-human material that greatness, if it is to exist, must be made.

Several commentators remarked that perhaps the greatest and most significant of the pope’s works were his teachings on the redemptive power of suffering – a lesson imparted not only in words, but in the way he handled suffering in his own life: from the loss of his mother at ten; to the persecution under the Nazis and Communists; to the attempted assassination; to the slow and debilitating illness that eventually brought his great and active life to its appointed end.

John Paul II, of course, attributed the ways diverse masses of people could be moved not to himself but to the workings of the Holy Spirit. “The way of the Church is man, and the way of man is Christ.” Many have said those words. John Paul communicated the meaning because he took those words to heart.     

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

© 2011 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Other Articles By This Author