Father Barron just sent back this update for the Chicago Sun-Times
from Rome. Watch for the latest news, videos, and photos posted at Word On Fire throughout the weekend.
For the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, nearly 3,000,000 people flooded into Rome, effectively doubling the city’s population. Some estimates are that crowds of that magnitude will return to the Eternal City Sunday to celebrate John Paul’s beatification. These big numbers are only fitting for the man who was seen by more people than any other person in history and who gathered the largest crowd ever assembled at World Youth Day in Manila. John Paul wanted to reach out to the world, and so it’s appropriate that the world is coming to witness his beatification.
The ceremony itself will take place during a Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square, presided by Pope Benedict XVI. This marks the first time in the history of the church, by the way, that a Pope will be beatified by his immediate successor. There will be nothing especially elaborate about the ceremony itself. After the Gospel, Pope Benedict will read a declaration affirming that John Paul is among the blessed in heaven and then a tapestry depicting the late Pope will be unfurled from the central loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. Many have wondered what differentiates beatification from canonization, the declaration that a person is a saint. The main difference is liturgical: a beatified person can be venerated in a limited way, which is to say, only in certain dioceses or certain countries; whereas a canonized saint can and should be venerated throughout the entire church. So Blessed John Paul, for instance, can be part of the liturgical calendar in his native Poland and in Rome, where he served so long as bishop.
In order for John Paul to be canonized, one more miracle, occurring after his beatification, must be formally acknowledged. There is a fascination with this part of the process, and appropriately so. In the course of the formal investigation into a person’s sanctity, the church considers any claims to miraculous healing through his or her intercession — in regard to John Paul, there have been thousands. The board that reviews these cases is made up of a number of highly qualified physicians, some of whom are non-believers. It is fair to say that the church bends over backwards in order to verify that a healing in question cannot be explained as a natural phenomenon. This focus on the miraculous results from the Catholic conviction that the saint is not simply someone who lived an exemplary and inspiring life but rather someone who is in heaven and who is, therefore, capable of interceding with God in a particularly powerful way.
I think that the emphasis on miracles clearly signals the most important dimension of the beatification, namely, that it is finally about God. The church doesn’t “make” saints; God makes them. The church merely declares or recognizes what God has accomplished through his grace. To be sure, a blessed or a saint is someone who has cooperated with the divine love to a heroic degree, but grace comes first. In a world that is so marked by cruelty, hatred, division, violence, and intolerance, the message that God’s love is alive, transformative and on vivid display in holy people is a welcome one indeed.
A misunderstanding that is evident, unfortunately, in some of the commentary around the beatification is that this declaration is a ratification that John Paul II was morally flawless and that all his prudential judgments were good ones. How, some have wondered, could the church consider blessed someone who was blind to the corruption of Rev. Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ? I’ll leave to the side for now the complex details of that case, but I do think that John Paul was, like many others, deceived by Maciel and that he, accordingly, made some bad decisions regarding Maciel’s ongoing direction of his order. But this flawed judgment does not tell against John Paul’s essential holiness or his heroic exercise of the virtues. The historians can and will debate the rectitude of the Pope’s particular moves throughout his Papacy; the church this Sunday is making a statement about his deep friendship with God.
The Rev. Robert Barron, a Chicago priest who is an acclaimed author, speaker and theologian, and Founder WordOnFire.org . He is in Rome providing coverage for the Chicago Sun-Times and NBC.