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Saints are supposed to be figures of unity. They exemplify virtues that we can emulate; they reveal hidden possibilities open to all of us if we accept God’s grace and mercy.
But saints are paradoxical figures. The very virtues they embody for some are vices to others.
And so it is with Karol Wojtyla, soon to be canonized as Saint John Paul II.
For some Catholics, John Paul II was close to being a supernatural figure during his own lifetime. The Catholicism he modeled was a combination of the muscular and the supple. The muscular qualities were evidenced in his steadfast resistance to Communism, his defense of the unborn and the aged, and in his unstinting insistence on doctrinal orthodoxy among theologians. The supple qualities could be found in his Marian devotion, his mysticism, and in his belief in the power of God’s mercy even in the midst of terrible suffering.
These seemingly paradoxically qualities are nowhere more in evidence than in his theology of the body, which celebrated both self-mastery and ecstasy in marital sexuality.
For other Catholics, John Paul II was far too human. The Catholicism he modeled was one that effectively muscled out more nuanced understandings of Catholicism’s possibilities in this day and age. His strength was considered to be an obstinacy that refused to face the growing scandals of his pontificate, particularly the crimes of Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ whom John Paul II once described as an “efficacious guide to youth.” As for the suppleness of his spirituality, some Catholics saw a retrograde vision that too quickly perceived a supernatural hand guiding human endeavors, particularly his own acts as Universal Pontiff.
Paradoxically, John Paul II has bequeathed the Catholic church both authoritarian and populist legacies. His papacy was “ultramontane” and in many respects recalled the reigns of monarchical Popes before the Second Vatican Council. But his pontificate also encouraged the expansive growth of lay-based organizations such as Focolare and Comunione e Liberazione. Most significantly, perhaps, by his own personal example, John Paul II gave impetus to devotional movements such as the Cult of Divine Mercy and to the popular celebration of “suffering servants” of Jesus, ranging from Padre Pio of Pietrelcina to Audrey Santo in my hometown of Worcester.
As a person and as saint, John Paul II defies easy characterization.
Along with many others, I recognize John Paul II’s humanity along with his sanctity, because both are inextricably linked. But what will become most apparent in the time leading up to his canonization is how commentary on John Paul II reflects our own conflicted understandings of sanctity and its relationship to our perceptions of human strength and weakness.