By Carmen Elena Villa
VATICAN CITY, FEB. 16, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Several commentaries were sparked by revelations in a recently publicized book by the postulator of John Paul II’s cause for canonization, calling into question the character of the former Pope.
To clarify these controversies, ZENIT spoke with the retired prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, who attended the launching of the Italian-language book, “Why He Is a Saint: The True John Paul II Explained by the Postulator of the Cause of Beatification” (Rizzoli Publications).
In the book, the postulator, Polish Monsignor Slawomir Oder, together with journalist Saverio Gaeta, director of the magazine Famiglia Cristiana, compile several testimonies that reveal details about Karol Wojtyla’s life.
The book is divided into three chapters: “The Man,” which reflects his most human features; “The Pope,” which highlights the most important moments of his pontificate; and “The Mystic,” which describes his intense spiritual life and his love for the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary.
The commentaries written by various media sources concentrated for the most part on three topics.
The first is Wojtyla’s alleged self-scourging. The second is a letter written in 1994, in which the Pontiff stated that he might resign in case of an “incurable illness” or of an impediment to “exercise (sufficiently) the functions of the Petrine ministry.” The third discussion revolved around an open letter addressed to Ali Agca, the man who attempted to assassinate the Holy Father in 1981.
In one of the last pages of the book there is a paragraph that indicates, according to some witnesses consulted by the postulator, that Pope John Paul II “scourged himself.” However, this continues to be hypothetical, given that to date no one has actually said that they saw this take place.
The book states that “in his wardrobe, among his soutanes, he had hanging a particular belt for trousers that he used as a whip, and which he would ensure was always taken to Castel Gandolfo.”
The author gave no further details; this is the sole description on this controversial topic in the 192 pages of the book.
Some journalists have speculated that John Paul II’s alleged scourging “might hold up the process of beatification.” Others have asserted that the Pope’s rigorous penances were the consequence of “mental imbalance.”
However, Cardinal Saraiva Martins explained to ZENIT that flagellation “is no more than the most beautiful expression of the Christian spirit, of the faith of the person who wants to be like Christ, who was scourged.”
ZENIT asked if this type of practice is necessary to attain sanctity. The cardinal responded that a saint should “scourge himself spiritually,” that is, always have a spirit of penance and sacrifice, and the capacity of offering up physical and spiritual pain.
He explained: “Clearly sanctity implies great heroism in life, it implies much self-denial, it implies extraordinary willpower to be able to imitate Christ.
“It implies great courage. It calls for spiritual preparation and giving up many things, to live life according to the principles of the Gospel.”
In the case of saints who have subjected themselves voluntarily to rigorous penance, these practices had nothing to do with psychological imbalance, the prelate added.
He said: “The saints are in the first place very normal persons. If this wasn’t so they wouldn’t be able to be saints.
“There are many saints who did penance and saw this as a way to bring their body under control; it has nothing to do with psychology.”
In one of the subtitles of the chapter on “The Pope,” Monsignor Oder said, “There is no place in the Church for a Pope Emeritus.” In this part of the book he recounted that John Paul II said that if he left the pontificate it would only be by the will of God.
The book quotes the Pontiff as saying: “I don’t want to be the one who puts an end to this task. The Lord has brought me up to here. I will let him be the one who judges or decides when this service must end.”
The volume includes a previously unpublished letter written by John Paul II in 1994, when he was about to celebrate his 75th birthday, the age in which bishops and cardinals are required to submit their resignation.
In this letter the Holy Father mentioned the possibility of resigning from the office in the case of extreme physical and mental impediments, but always in accordance with the will of God.
On this subject Cardinal Saraiva Martins said that the book does not present “anything new.”
It is only a matter of “following Paul VI’s dispositions,” who said he could not leave his office unless he suffered from an “incurable illness” that physically and psychologically impeded his continuing with this responsibility, the prelate explained. If that were the case, the Pope would have to resign to the position of dean of the College of Cardinals.
Regarding the open letter to Ali Agca, which appears in the book dated Sept. 11, 1981, the cardinal said that in it is written “what all of us already know.”
“The Pope forgave him even though he [Agca] did not ask for forgiveness,” the prelate said.
Cardinal Saraiva Martins told ZENIT that there is no reason for the recently published book to hold up or speed up the Pontiff’s process of beatification, given that last Dec. 19 the Holy See published the decree on the his heroic virtue. From that moment, John Paul II was recognized with the title of venerable.
“When it receives the documentation of a candidate to the altar, the first thing the Congregation for Saints’ Causes does is to study the way in which he has lived the Christian virtues,” explained the cardinal.
He continued: “Not in an ordinary way, not an ordinary sanctity but sanctity to a heroic degree.
“Heroism is what distinguishes saints from other Christians.”
The prelate noted that the only thing lacking for John Paul II to receive the title of saint is proof of a miracle through his intercession that is inexplicable by science.
In any process of beatification, the cardinal affirmed, the work of the postulator should be to compile testimonies and information that confirm the sanctity of the candidate. His opinion does not count in the process; the data is studied exclusively by the congregation.
Knowing that the postulator should be a neutral person, ZENIT asked if it is not imprudent to publish a book titled “Why He Is a Saint,” when the candidate to the has not even been beatified?
The former prefect stated that the postulator, on a personal level, “can say what he likes.”
He clarified that this book “has nothing to do with the process itself,” that is, it will neither advance nor stall it.
Cardinal Saraiva Martins pointed out that the title responds, rather, to the clamor of the people, who from the moment of John Paul II’s death took to the streets with posters that said “santo subito,” “santo pronto” [now a saint, soon a saint].