Monday, 2 May 2011

Sanctity & Celebrity... and bin-Laden

I spent my morning walk today catching up with the BBC's 'Sunday' programme, which this week reflected on the imminent beatification of the late Pope John Paul II - imminent when the programme was broadcast, but now a fait accompli.

There was, I have to say, much about this event that concerned me. The whole idea of officially sanctioned holiness is one that irritates me greatly and which I struggle to justify theologically. Being a saint (of which this beatification is a step) is not the privilege of a few but the calling of the whole church, reflecting the holiness of God through openness to the Holy Spirit. It is God who 'makes you a saint', not the church.

Yes, there are those who walk the way of Christ who inspire others in their journey: I have a number of people in my life without whom I would not be the person I am, the Christian I am, and the minister I am. But they do not need the official sanction of the church to be 'saints'.

The speed with which Fr Wojtyla has attained 'Blessedness' is almost unprecedented, and his elevation to 'full sainthood' will probably not be long in coming. Indeed the public clamour in some circles for this has been evident since shortly after his death. This may be due to his being a very high-profile Pontiff, in that he travelled over 3/4 million miles during his papacy, and as such fitted very neatly into the burgeoning 'celebrity culture' of today's world. How much is that 'celebrity' status influencing his elevation, I wonder? How much is the cult of the saints about holy celebrity? There are, after all, various lists of saints: those who have 'feasts', those who have 'commemorations'; the 'A-list' of apostles and archangels, the 'C-list' of the 'Blessed', and the 'E-list' of 'those whose faith is known to God alone'.

I have no doubt that John Paul was a good Pope, maybe even (as some are dubbing him) a 'Great' one. He did much to raise the profile of the Catholic Church during his papacy; he worked tirelessly to inspire his native Poles, and others in Eastern Europe, to throw off the yoke of Communism; he committed himself to Evangelisation, and no doubt helped to lead many to faith or to a deeper faith. But he also presided over the huge systematic cover-up of child abuse by some members of the Catholic clergy, steadfastly refused to change his (and the church's) stance on women's ministry, abortion and contraception, and became increasingly authoritarian and controlling towards the end of his life. He was, at the end of the day, a human being like you or I - and a fallible one at that. But by the grace of God - and only by that grace - he was also one of the 'hagioi', the holy ones.

As I sat down to write this, news began to break of the death of Osama bin-Laden in Pakistan. Over the last 10 years or so, he has become the celebrity villain par excellence, and there can be no greater contrast in the public imagination than the events of these last two days. Understandably there will be great rejoicing among the American people at this news, and probably elsewhere in the world too, and maybe even a sense of closure from the events of September 11 2001. But one wonders whether 'justice' has truly been served by his death. What I am reasonably sure of is that bin-Laden will now face The Judge, to whom we all will answer, and that, ultimately, is the verdict that matters.