‘Those who question the sanctity of John Paul II don’t know what they’re talking about’

From 1991 until 2005, Cardinal Camillo Ruini served Pope John Paul II as the papal Vicar for Rome – the man who handled the daily affairs of the diocese of which the Pope was, of course, bishop. Ruini was a creative cardinal-vicar who energized the Diocese of Rome for the New Evangelization – a concept he grasped perhaps better than any other Italian prelate. As president of the Italian bishops’ conference, he was committed to John Paul II’s program of “broadening the Tiber:” that is, getting the Italian Church out of its customary entanglements with partisan Italian politics and into the business of Catholic moral witness and the Christian transformation of culture. Had the College of Cardinals decided to elect an Italian to the papacy in 2005, Cardinal Ruini would have made an excellent choice.     

I last spoke with the cardinal in October 2019. A few months short of his 89th birthday, he was, as ever, sharp, shrewd, candid, humorous, and well-informed about the Catholic situation around the world. So I was not surprised when Cardinal Ruini took to the pages of the newspaper Il Foglio last month in defense of the pontificate and sanctity of John Paul II, demonstrating that he had lost none of his vigor in the 13 months since we had seen each other. His responses to various attacks on John Paul’s character and competence since the publication of the McCarrick Report are worth recording for an English-language audience.

Why did John Paul II’s beatification and canonization cause begin immediately? Because, Cardinal Ruini explained, more than 80 cardinals had signed a petition to the “future pope” before the conclave of 2005, asking whoever was elected to waive the normal five-year waiting period before a cause begins. The petition was entrusted to Ruini, and the newly-elected Benedict XVI “immediately” agreed with the request when the cardinal, as Vicar of Rome, presented it to him at their first audience. 

Why did the cause proceed so rapidly? The process unfolded “with absolute regularity, in compliance with all regulations.” Moreover, reports of miracles – “and what miracles!” – were pouring into the Vicariate of Rome even before the process began. Was the finger of God not to be seen in this?

What does the cardinal say when the holiness of John Paul II is questioned? Those who make this charge are “blinded by preconceptions and don’t know what they’re talking about.” The cardinal went on to discuss his “close contact” with the Polish pope over two decades and how he was “struck from the beginning by the intensity of his prayer: he immersed himself in it…totally…and nothing that happened around him distracted him.”

Was John Paul II an absentee manager who didn’t pay sufficient attention to administration?Not according to his longtime cardinal-vicar. “He carefully chose his closest collaborators” and then put his confidence in them. “At the same time, he had a very high sense of his own responsibility and mission, fully understanding the nature of governance.” Any charge that John Paul II’s management style was “superficial” is “false and deeply unfair: nothing in his way of being or operating was superficial.”

Was John Paul II intimidated by Theodore McCarrick’s exuberance and seeming power? “To think that McCarrick, or even people much more important than him, could intimidate John Paul II is simply ridiculous…..John Paul II was not afraid of anyone on earth….In his choices [John Paul] placed himself before God and made decisions not only in conscience but in the presence of God. All this does not mean that one or another decision could not have been wrong.” (As the decisions regarding McCarrick’s transfer to Washington and his cardinalate surely were). But it does mean John Paul never took decisions “lightly.”       

Shouldn’t the Church wait longer before canonizing popes? In measuring sanctity, Cardinal Ruini concluded, popes should be regarded “as far as possible like every other member of the Church, without preferential tracks and without penalties.” 

As he got to know John Paul II, Cardinal Ruini came to be “amazed by [John Paul’s] extraordinary ability to forgive.” If life at the Throne of Grace is the perfection of virtues displayed in this life, then St. John Paul II has forgiven his recent detractors: those settling old ideological scores, and those who agree with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, that magic and crime both work by getting people to look the wrong way so that they don’t see what’s really going on. Knowing of his forgiveness, perhaps the John Paul II detractors will be moved to a similar generosity of spirit. I’m doubtful. But we may hope. 

Featured image by Vatican Media

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.