Last Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI joyfully beatified his predecessor, now called “Blessed John Paul II.” It was gratifying to see so many people, including many in the press, so interested and pleased—even overjoyed—by this declaration. At the same time, many seem to be confused as to exactly what this means—to be “beatified” or called “blessed.” Many in the press referred to it as “the last step” in the process of canonization or sainthood. While that’s true, it somewhat diminishes the importance of his beatification. Others say, “now John Paul is a saint,” which blurs the important difference between sainthood and blessedness.
Although I’m no expert, let me try to clarify. “Beatification,” or the declaration by the Pope that a deceased person may be called “Blessed,” represents the careful judgment of the Church, after meticulous and lengthy investigation, that the person lived an heroic life of holiness, and may be considered by the faithful as being in heaven. Now, you say, that sounds an awful lot like being declared a “saint.” It is, and it isn’t. The difference between the two is basically in that the decree of blessedness/beatification is more permissive while the decree of sainthood/canonization is more definitive.
Remember, this whole process of beatification and canonization usually arises from a desire of the faithful—the folks in the pew—to venerate a person as being in heaven; specifically, to pray to them and seek their intercession. While any of us can privately think that a deceased person is in heaven, and pray to them, it is up to the Church alone to decide if this should be done publicly (i.e., together in groups or in the liturgy). This is important because of the very clear risk of scandal and confusion: what if a group of Catholics regularly gathered to pray to a person that others know or believe to have been a scoundrel or unrepentant, grave sinner? Imagine the mockery and terrible moral confusion this would cause.
Even so, when a desire to venerate a deceased person in this way rises up among a great many of the faithful, the Church often begins the investigation that leads to beatification. Beatification effectively says that, after very careful consideration, it is reasonable for the faithful to think that the person is in heaven and so to pray to him/her, even publicly and in the liturgy. Note, however, there is still some caution expressed in the decree: the Blessed may only be venerated at the Mass in certain locations—not “universally” throughout the Church. Thus, while the Diocese of Rome and the Dioceses of Poland will liturgically celebrate the Feast of Blessed John Paul II every year on October 22, the rest of the dioceses of the world may not do so without specific permission of the Pope himself. Due to the widespread popularity of Blessed John Paul, Pope Benedict made a special exception to this rule by allowing that during the next year (by May 1, 2012) any bishop may permit the celebration of a Mass of Thanksgiving in honor of the Blessed in his diocese. (Note: as of yet, Bishop Loverde has not given this permission, though I have a strong suspicion he will.) This “caution” is absent from the decree of sainthood/canonization. In proclaiming a person a “saint,” the Pope definitively holds that whole Church will venerate the person as a saint in heaven, and honor him/her as such at Mass.
In sum, note the difference between finding it “reasonable” to venerate the Blessed versus “defining” that a Saint should be venerated, and the difference between permitting certain local dioceses to liturgically honor the Blessed, versus placing the saint on the liturgical calendarof the whole Church. Note: so distinct are the differences here that, historically, many respected theologians have held that the declaration of sainthood is infallible, while the same theologians have universally rejected infallibility with regard to beatification. While canonization may or may not be infallible (the debate is not at all settled), the definitive character of canonization is clearly radically different than the “reasonable” character of beatification. This is in no way to diminish the honor due to Blessed John Paul, only to help clarify the important distinction.
In any case, it is clear that all the faithful are free to venerate the newly beatified pontiff and seek his heavenly intercession. I know I will.
Other News. It is fitting that Pope John Paul was beatified on the first day in May since he was so devoted to the Blessed Mother and May is the Month of Mary. Today (Sunday, May 8) after the 12:15 Mass, we will mark this devotion with the “May Crowning.” All are invited to join us. Also, I encourage all of you to keep this devotion by praying the Rosary during this month—even every day. I especially encourage all families to pray the Rosary together at least once a week. In the words of Blessed John Paul: “The family that recites the Rosary together reproduces something of the atmosphere of the household of Nazareth: its members place Jesus at the centre, they share his joys and sorrows, they place their needs and their plans in his hands, they draw from him the hope and the strength to go on” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 41).
Also, Fr. Peter Odhiambo Okola leaves us this week. I would like to thank him not only for all his hard work in the parish these last two years, but also for the great example of priestly holiness he has shown to all of us, particularly to me. Thank you, Fr. Peter, and may the Lord Jesus Christ bless you, and His Mother keep you in her care, now and forever.
Finally, yesterday (Saturday, May 7) 95 of our children received their First Holy Communion. Congratulations to all of them! What a great day in the life of these children and the life of every Catholic! I’m sure all of us remember our First Holy Communion—I know I do, like it was yesterday. Seeing our little ones receive for the first time with such reverence, faith and love brings joy to all our hearts. Would that we could all receive Holy Communion at every Mass with the childlike devotion that we did that very first time. Let us pray that these children always keep that devotion, and let us pray that it be renewed in each of us. “Unless you become like little children….”
Oremus pro invicem. Blessed John Paul II, pray for us! Fr. De Celles