Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Just after his conversion to Catholicism, Thomas Merton, who would become one of the greatest spiritual masters of the 20th century, was walking with his friend, the poet Robert Lax. Lax said to him, “Tom, what do you want out of life?” Merton replied, “Well, I suppose I want to be a good Catholic.” And his friend said, with a hint of impatience, “No, you should want to be a saint!” Lax was right: The ordinary goal of the Catholic life is to become a saint, which means a friend of God, a person of holiness.
Someone who understood this in his bones was Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. And this is why, as pope, he declared more blesseds and saints than all of his predecessors combined. He wanted to show that holiness is not the exclusive preserve of biblical figures and ecclesiastical heroes from long ago. He wanted to vividly demonstrate that being a friend of God is a lively, indeed thrilling, option on the table for people today. It is therefore wonderfully appropriate that John Paul will be, this coming Sunday, in the course of a festive liturgy at St. Peter’s Square, officially declared “blessed” or “beatified.”
Millions will flood into Rome — the biggest crowd since the funeral of John Paul in 2005 — in order to celebrate the pope’s legacy, but more importantly, to celebrate the God who made him holy.
I have spoken of holiness as a kind of friendship with God. The church believes that this relationship begins here below but reaches its fulfillment beyond this life, in the realm of heaven. And for this reason, one of the criteria for the determination of beatification is a miracle worked through the intercession of a heavenly friend of God. After careful investigation, the church declared the healing of a French nun from an advanced case of Parkinson’s disease to have been the result of John Paul’s intercession. Consequently, the mass of beatification on Sunday — at which the cured sister will be in attendance — will be, for Catholics, a vivid reminder of the reality of the higher world to which all believers aspire. In order to declare John Paul II a saint, the church requires a second miracle, performed and verified after the beatification. So now we wait and pray for that.
Another way that the church characterizes a blessed or a saint is as someone who has lived a life of “heroic virtue.” This means that he or she demonstrated, to a remarkable degree, the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, as well as the natural virtues of justice, prudence, courage and temperance. In the course of the five-year inquiry into the life and work of John Paul, the church spoke to hundreds of witnesses, compiled a four-volume biography and examined all of his writings and speeches in order to determine precisely this point: whether he had cooperated with God’s grace and lived out the virtues in a radical way. The affirmative answer they gave was but a verification of the intuition of the crowds who chanted “Santo subito!” (“Sainthood now!”) at John Paul’s funeral mass.
The pure white light of the sun, as it passes through a prism, breaks into a variety of colors. In a similar way, when the light of God’s holiness passes through the prism of the saints, it displays itself in an array of diverse colors: It appears as the simplicity of Therese of Lisieux, as the deep intellectuality of Thomas Aquinas, as the nonviolence of Francis of Assisi, as the courage of Edith Stein. And this is precisely why the church takes the saints so seriously: It sees them as icons of God’s life, signs of hope in a dark world. John Paul II, in accord with the uniqueness of his personality, radiated something of the holiness of God to us — and that is a thing eminently worth celebrating.
The Rev. Robert Barron, a Chicago priest who is an acclaimed author, speaker and theologian, operates the website wordonfire.org. He is in Rome providing coverage for the Chicago Sun-Times and NBC .