How John Paul II Changes Our Way of Seeing Saints

Interview With Journalist Fabio Zavattaro

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ROME, OCT. 31, 2004 ( Fabio Zavattaro, a journalist who covers the Vatican, appreciates John Paul II’s pontificate through the saints and blessed he has proclaimed.

Journalist Zavattaro has just finished writing the book «I Santi e Karol. Il Nuevo Volto della Santità» (The Saints and Karol: The New Face of Holiness), published by Ancora.

Zavattaro began his career in journalism in 1981, and has been working for the Italian newspaper Avvenire. He also works for RAI 1 television news and has covered all the Holy Father’s trips since 1983. In this interview gives keys to understand the Pope’s great interest in holiness.

Q: What has changed in the world of saints with Karol Wojtyla?

Zavattaro: The way of «reading» saints has changed, which is what I attempt to explain in my book. In only 26 years of pontificate, John Paul II has given the Church, and Christians, more than 1,300 blessed and 480 saints. They are travel companions, in joy and suffering. They are men and women who wrote a new page in their lives and in the lives of so many people.

That is why the Pope wished to propose them. I will explain myself better.

For some time, saints and blessed were almost unattainable figures, great doctors of the Church: St. Francis, St. Clare. Instead, Pope Wojtyla has been innovative, raising to the altar persons who are still remembered by fellow citizens. At times, they still have children who are living, a husband. I am thinking of Gianna Beretta Molla, or the Beltrame Quattrocchi spouses.

They are men and women of our time. We have known them, perhaps we have shared part of the journey with them, a brief page of common history. In a word, they are next-door saints and blessed.

And this is precisely the Pope’s message: Holiness is not a gift reserved for a few. We can all aspire to it, because it is a goal within our capacity — a great lesson reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council, which initiated a new period of a Church ever more open to the world.

Q: Is it possible to sketch a model of holiness «à la John Paul II,» if you excuse the expression?

Zavattaro: I believe the model à la John Paul II, to use your expression, is a holiness lived day in, day out.

A saint is an authentic, concrete man, as Pope Wojtyla says. His testimony of life attracts, beseeches and draws, because it manifests a transparent human experience, full of the presence of Christ.

For the Pope, the call to holiness excludes no one; it is not the privilege of a spiritual elite.

They are saints [and] blessed who did not try to be regarded as heroes, or to shock or provoke. A saint is an ordinary person, a doctor, a university student, a nun who was a former slave, a priest who endured the Soviet gulags, a married couple, a catechist. Friends.

Q: The Pope was ordained on the feast of All Saints. Do you see a prophecy in this coincidence?

Zavattaro: It is of course a fact that no one can overlook. His whole life — the figures he has had next to him, the decision on the place of his first Mass, Wawel [the Krakow cathedral], the day of ordination — leads one to think that John Paul II has paid much attention to the presence of saints and blessed, also in the life of the Church.

The Pope himself explains this in «Gift and Mystery,» when he says that there was a sort of theological affinity in the fact of having chosen the place and date of his ordination and of his first Mass.

In Wawel Cathedral, the kings, princes, cardinals, bishops and great teachers of the Word are buried, who have been of great importance in his Christian and patriotic formation. How can one not see, therefore, an indicated path, an already laid-out plan?

Q: What do you think of those who criticize this Pope, accusing him of creating an «inflation» of saints and blessed?

Zavattaro: It is difficult to answer this question. At first sight it might seem that he has exaggerated with the proclamation of all these saints and blessed.

However, let us try to reflect on the meaning of the argument: The key lies in finding a guide, a teacher who is able to be a companion on life’s journey, a person who seems close to one, a known or perhaps familiar face.

A priest, a layman who has left tangible traces of his presence, perhaps in places where we live — how many times do we hear it said, «That person, that priest is really a saint» — can be of greater help in life than the edifying stories of books.

Between two testimonies — books or known and close saints — which is an easier travel companion? Therefore, is it possible to speak of inflation of saints and blessed?

Q: Of course, not. Would you dare to name the Pope’s favorite saints?

Zavattaro: No. I wouldn’t dare to draw up a classification, among other reasons because I don’t think it can be done as, for the Pope, all saints and blessed are of great importance. They are witnesses, points of reference for every man and woman — hence, no list.

But if I may continue this reflection, I don’t think I would commit a sin if I said that the figures the Pope most appreciates are simple, humble saints and blessed.

They are figures who are, perhaps, on a second plane compared to founders of orders; popes; and emperors. But this does not mean that they should be diminished. Also among them are priests who have paid with their life for their fidelity to the Gospel and the Church.

I am thinking of priests persecuted by oppressive regimes, imprisoned bishops reduced to silence, young catechists and priests committed in mission lands. A humanity that «has always pulled the cart» without expecting prizes or recognition, and because of this, figures of the first plane in the history of Christianity.

The world needs credible witnesses more than teachers. With his decision to proclaim so many blessed and saints, John Paul II has wished to propose figures capable of accompanying this station of life.

He himself is a witness who, through his suffering and effort, communicates an extraordinary message to the man of today. A message that starts with authentic and essential things, the will to live despite the difficulties and impediments.

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