Pope John Paul II: fast-tracked to celebrity sainthood?

How he became 'the Greatest Pope' - by dying.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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There was never any question that the death of Pope John Paul II – head of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican State and an international political figure – would dominate the news, or that those who subscribe to the Catholic faith would mourn his passing. Yet the broader reaction (or overreaction) to his death seems to be influenced more by contemporary culture than old-world Catholic culture. In the widespread mourning sickness that greeted his demise, we can see the new religion of celebrity worship at work, and an attempt to forge one of those elusive Shared International Experiences around ‘grieving for a great man’.

The response in St Peter’s Square appeared to have more in common with the teddy-bear-and-flowers frenzy that followed Princess Diana’s death in 1997 than with sombre Catholic mourning. People chanted ‘Giovanni Paolo! Giovanni Paolo!’ as if ‘cheering on a hero at a football match’, reported The Times (London) (1). A group of young devotees calling themselves the ‘Papa Boys’ whooped and clapped every time his image flashed up on huge TV screens in the square, as if at a rock concert. Others in the square left flowers and told the media of their feelings of ‘personal loss’ – a common sight after tragedies in our post-Diana age (2).

Elsewhere, officials, statesmen and commentators scrambled to describe the Pope in the most historic terms they could muster. It is common, of course, to pay tribute to a head of state or church who has passed, especially one of global authority, but some went way beyond the call of duty. The Pope has been referred to as the ‘greatest Pope in history’ (what, including St Peter?), ‘the greatest political actor of our time’ and ‘man of the century, period’ (3). One mourner in London said, ‘He is the greatest man in the history of the Roman Catholic religion.’ (4) Surely there is one other man who trumps John Paul on that front? Graham Greene once dreamed of a newspaper headline that said, ‘Pope canonises Jesus Christ’ – perhaps the greatest man in the history of Catholicism will get around to that once he passes through the pearly gates.

The Vatican, likewise, seems to have abandoned all sense of historical perspective in its celebration of this pontiff. Vatican secretary of state Angelo Sodano described him as ‘John Paul the Great’ in the text version of a homily he gave yesterday (though he didn’t read the words out in the event). The title ‘the Great’ has previously been accorded to just three of 263 Popes, and the last time was over a thousand years ago, to Pope Nicholas I (858-867). One mourner in St Peter’s Square took this sentiment to its logical conclusion when she said: ‘We haven’t lost a Pope, but the Pope….’ (5)

Again, these over-the-top plaudits, both from within and without the Vatican, seem to have more in common with contemporary culture than Catholic culture, which has traditionally been sparing in its dishing out of Greatness. They echo the instantaneous nature of our celebrity culture, where celebs, heroes and martyrs can be made overnight (and forgotten almost as quickly). ‘Ordinary people’ become household names via Reality TV; more strikingly, the death of a celebrity can confer almost instant secular sainthood these days – consider Diana’s overnight transformation from glorified clotheshorse to ‘the People’s Princess’ in 1997.

John Paul II has, within 24 hours, gone from being a Pope – an important international figure, no doubt, who was loved by some and criticised by others – to being the Pope, the greatest Holy Father ever, referred to by one contributor to a BBC discussion board as ‘He’, a capitalisation normally reserved only for Christ. Yet just a couple of weeks ago he was a highly contentious figure – his stance on the use of contraception in Africa provoked fury in some quarters, and he won few friends in London and Washington when he criticised the conduct of the war in Iraq. This shift from contentious Pope to greatest Pope in the space of a week or so highlights the shallowness of the reaction to his death and of Blair and others’ call for individuals ‘of all faiths and none’ to ‘salute’ him: everyone now blandly agrees that he was a ‘Great Man’ but there is precious little discussion of what he actually did. If we were to discuss that, there would be heated disagreement; far better to look at photos of him visiting different countries and peoples and agree that he was good.

He has, in essence, been made into a Celebrity Saint, becoming one of the greatest men ever simply by virtue of dying, it seems. Indeed, one commentator now argues that, ‘Because of John Paul II’s example, his successor will have to be more than the CEO of the Roman Catholic Church – he will have to be a celebrity as well as a preacher.’ (6)

The Pope did much to set the precedent for today’s fast-tracked sainthood: during his 26-year rule he canonised more men and women than all the other Popes combined. He streamlined the beatification process; in 1983 he decreed that martyrs – those killed for their faith – could be beatified without the need for a certifiable miracle. Previously, it would take decades, sometimes centuries, for a man or woman to become a saint; John Paul II ensured that it could happen with the signing of a piece of paper. These individuals can be looked upon as the Catholic Church’s version of celebrities, an attempt to appear busy and virtuous by beatifying hundreds of people and creating household names in the process.

The worldwide response to the Pope’s passing also looks like a search for a Shared International Experience, a sentiment that we can all feel united around, however fleetingly. So individuals of different faiths have expressed their own sense of loss, while both faith and political leaders have called on the ‘world community’ to ‘come together’ in recognition of the Pope’s contribution to world peace and justice. At a time when there is little moral consensus on the big issues of the day, our leaders latch on to anything that seems unifying – even if it’s the very basic, broad sentiment that it’s a bit sad when someone dies.

Of course, the Catholic Church felt this absence of moral consensus more acutely than most. An institution that has traditionally considered itself ‘the one, true apostolic church’ became increasingly adrift in our relativist world of many faith options, where we can pick’n’choose our belief system and where some argue that there is no such thing as truth anyway, never mind One Truth. It is striking that one thing the Vatican was considering towards the end of John Paul II’s rule was to decree that smoking is a sin, an act that is ‘not neutral in social or indeed moral terms’ (7). An institution whose every statement, whether on abortion, contraception or inter-faith relations, could provoke controversy seemed to want to turn towards lifestyle issues, where there is often more agreement, in a bid to shore up its moral authority. It seems the Catholic Church can achieve consensus these days only by saying that smoking is bad and, now, that the Pope’s death is sad.

Some commentators have argued that the Pope stood above today’s ‘cynical opportunism and spineless compromises’ and that mourning his passing has allowed us to rise above the everyday. In truth, the reaction to his death is informed by today’s cynical culture more than they care to admit.

(1) Chants and songs for John Paul the Great, The Times, 4 April 2005

(2) Outpouring of a sense of personal loss, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April 2005

(3) A modern-age Pope, to a point, Seattle Times, 4 April 2005

(4) UK Poles mourn death of ‘father’, BBC News, 3 April 2005

(5) Tens of thousands greet news of Pope’s death with tears, song at St. Peter’s, CBC News, 4 April 2005

(6) Pope changed world without armies, USA Today, 3 April 2005

(7) Vatican closer to condemning smoking, Washington Times, 31 December 2004

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Topics Politics


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