Laity's Holiness and John Paul II's Popularity

Interview With Father Peter Gumpel

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ROME, APRIL 12, 2005 ( The hundreds of thousands of people who crowded St. Peter’s Square and nearby streets after John Paul II’s death was an extraordinary event, by any standard.

Many observers explained this phenomenon as an expression of the Pope’s popularity; others spoke of the changing signs of the times.

To better understand how and to what extent John Paul II’s pontificate has changed the Church, ZENIT interviewed Father Peter Gumpel, who has lived under six Pontiffs, four of whom — Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II — he knew personally.

Q: What are the merits of John Paul II’s pontificate?

Father Gumpel: He did much for peace; this is one of the duties of the Supreme Pontiff. He witnessed and communicated Christian doctrine systematically and constitutionally, even on topics that were not well appreciated, such as the question of marriage and celibacy. He was consistent, unhesitating and not worried about being unpopular.

Through his many trips and meetings he was in direct contact with hundreds of millions of people, and took the papacy to the people, precisely at a moment when the Church and the papacy were being criticized.

His genuineness and affability won over young people who followed him. Youths are the future of the Church and this is a very positive event.

He undoubtedly fostered the ecumenical movement with other Christian denominations and established good dialogue with the Jews and also the Muslims, without making undue concessions.

He promoted beatifications and canonizations in several ways, and the authentic concept of holiness, with a marked tendency in favor of the laity.

He encouraged the emergence and diffusion of new communities in the Church such as the new lay movements. There were problems in accepting these movements, but he counseled them and accepted, reconciled and supported them in their growth.

Q: During his funeral, so many called for John Paul II to be raised to the altars. Is a beatification by acclamation possible?

Father Gumpel: No, it’s not possible. John Paul II might be proclaimed blessed but in the context of canonical rules and after a regular process.

We must remember that even for St. Francis, who was declared a saint two years after his death, two dossiers were prepared, drawn up by two different cardinals.

Q: John Paul II raised many blessed and saints to the altars. Why did Wojtyla give such prominence to the saints? What has changed in the procedure of processes of beatification and canonization?

Father Gumpel: Under his pontificate, 1,345 persons were beatified and 482 canonized. This number is greater than that of all Pontiffs over the last 400 years. It’s an extraordinary fact.

For many people, to follow a path of holiness seems unrealizable. In fact, John Paul II wished to show that canonizations and beatifications do not require extraordinary events.

This is what Catholic doctrine teaches. Benedict XV, who died in 1922, had already said several times that true holiness consists of doing the things of ordinary life in an extraordinarily good, consistent and joyful way.

This doctrine was confirmed by Pius XI, who even said that true saints live in the monotony of daily life, do their work, and carry out their duties in a normal, consistent and joyful way — a teaching confirmed by Pius XII and by all Popes who followed him up to John Paul II.

The Pontiff’s objective was to present concrete examples of persons who lived Christianity in a consistent and radical way. This makes a greater impression on people than a book or a sermon. Wojtyla sought to convince people that it is possible to live as saints.

[There are] saints of all ages, for example, the children of Fatima, adolescents, adults who bear the burden of life, the elderly who seem to have no longer anything to hope for.

In particular, John Paul II focused attention on lay men and women who for a long time had remained behind. In the past, for many centuries it was thought that holiness was something for priests and religious, even though this was never the doctrine of the Church. The various orders promoted their members, but the laity had no one, not even a postulation to promote their causes.

The first postulation was that of the Society of Jesus, which took on a good number of causes of the laity, and the first to request to be responsible for the laity was Pius XII.

Wojtyla also paid much attention to martyrs, because this is the following that is closest to that of Christ who gave his life to protect us.

Thanks to the changes made by John Paul II, the apostolic constitution and annexed documents was promulgated on January 25, 1983, which changed the procedure of the causes of beatification and canonization.

These ideas already emerged during the pontificates of Pius XII and Paul VI, but [John Paul II] put them into practice, he eliminated several pompous things that had been added in the course of the centuries. For example, the number of miracles.

Before, for every beatification, whether or not of martyrs, two miracles were required. Now, no miracles are required for the beatification of martyrs; for the beatification of non-martyrs, one miracle is sufficient.

For all canonizations, whether or not of martyrs, two miracles were necessary; now, one is sufficient. A diminution that is reasonable because in the past doctors did not have the knowledge we have today.

Q: What are the greatest problems the next Pope will have to address?

Father Gumpel: I think the essential issue to be addressed is the nomination of capable bishops; to pay much attention to the formation of the clergy, and above all to govern with firmness.

There are things that must not be tampered with, as for example, the divinity of Christ, eternal life, life after death, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and so on.

If in a seminary a professor of theology casts doubts on these truths of faith or denies them outright, he fails in the canonical mission he has been given and should have the good sense to resign from his post, and if he is not willing to do so, there should be no reluctance to take disciplinary measures.

This is the most important task, to dedicate more time to the study of the real problems of the Church, not only in general, but in the individual dioceses, to be strong not yielding.

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