OK, do the Polish visions math

Hang on, because this is going to be a strange post. It’s possible that this only makes sense to me, at the moment.

So here goes.

Let’s jump back to that New York Times image of the late Pope John Paul II being the “John Wayne of the modern papacy, both tough and tender.” I am still not sure what that means, other than that this was an image of the pope as a charismatic stage presence.

However, John Paul II was much more than that, according to both his many supporters and equally outspoken critics. In other words, this man’s long papacy had content and this has something to do with why many are convinced that he is a heroic saint.

What kind of content? Damian Thompson of The Telegraph posted the following, which is commentary work that includes a strong dose of hard fact that was missing from the beatification rites. The headline?

Blessed John Paul II saved the Catholic Church from going the way of the Anglican Communion

Here is a large chunk of that:

The Catholic Church in the 1970s had something of the flavour of the Anglican Communion today. The question of women priests did not tip the Church into schism, but it was a distinct possibility. The Dutch Church had effectively declared UDI from the Vatican; beneath the near-impenetrable jargon of American and European theologians lay fundamental assaults on Catholic belief in the Real Presence, the sacramental priesthood and many other doctrines.

John Paul II used the power of the papal office to close down debates over these matters. Liberal Catholics may regard this as an assault on intellectual freedom, but from a sociological perspective what we were witnessing was the leader of a worldwide religion using his teaching authority to declare that his organisation believed X and not Y. No religion can survive without such boundaries, wherever they are drawn. … There are other instances of boundary-drawing which kept in what other Catholics were trying to throw out, such as traditional devotion to the Virgin Mary, which was marginalised after the Second Vatican Council but, thanks to Mary’s devoted servant John Paul II, is now firmly back in the mainstream.

Karol Wojtyla was a man of formidable intellect: his encyclicals, and the Catechism he commissioned, sought to enrich rather than pare down the Magisterium. But it strikes me that his central achievement was to spell out what Catholics believe and what they do not, something that was by no means clear when he took office. Discuss.

So what we have here is a John Wayne with brainpower, one who mustered intellectual arguments to defend ancient traditions in a showdown with elements of modernity and post modernity — doctrinal traditions and, to some degree, worship traditions. The latter half of that equation is, of course, linked to the Polish blood that ran in the veins of the man who millions now want hail as “the great.”

Thus, I would argue that the beatification rites contained liturgical and doctrinal content. This was a John Wayne character whose heart was also open to mysticism and the devotions of the common people (in places like Poland). Many detested him for that. He was so, so Polish. Too Polish.

This brings us to my Scripps Howard column for this week, which is about the liturgically loaded timing for last weekend’s rites. Please read it and offer your comment on the time line that serves as the heart of this essay:

Here’s the top third of the piece:

To grasp the full symbolism of the Vatican rites in which 1 million or more Catholics celebrated the beatification of Pope John Paul II, it helps to understand the visions recorded decades earlier in the diary of Sister Mary Faustina Kowalksa.

Popes come and popes go. But the lives of this Polish nun and this Polish pope may be helping to reshape a crucial piece of the Catholic year — the celebrations that follow Easter, the high point of the Christian year.

It was in 1937 that Kowalksa wrote: “As I was praying for Poland I heard the words: I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming.”

After her earlier visions, which church leaders initially discounted, the young nun had written down a cycle of prayers appealing for God’s forgiveness and mercy, a set of devotions that became known as the “Divine Mercy Chaplet.” In the years after her death in 1938, a seminarian in nearby Krakow named Karol Wojtyla became devoted to these prayers and to the legacy of Kowalksa.

Wojtyla, of course, soon became a priest and a popular professor, before beginning his ascent as a bishop, archbishop and cardinal. Then, in 1978, he became Pope John Paul II.

No one was surprised when this loyal son of Poland beatified Kowalksa on April 18, 1993, and canonized her on April 30, 2000. “The message of Divine Mercy has always been near and dear to me,” noted John Paul II during a 1997 pilgrimage to the nun’s tomb. It could be said, he added, that her message “forms the image of this pontificate.”

And when is Divine Mercy Sunday? The second Sunday of Easter.

When did John Paul II die? On the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday.

When did Pope Benedict XVI declare him “blessed”? On Divine Mercy Sunday.

Might this have been a significant element of this news story? Is all of that mere symbolism or content of the life of John Paul II?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dan Crawford

    How does devotion to the Divine Mercy of Jesus differ from the once popular devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Even the iconography of Divine Mercy is reminiscent of the statues and paintings of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Is it simply that devotion to the Divine Mercy is 20th century and the Sacred Heart 17th Century? Polish rather than French?

  • sallyr

    I think most (active) Catholics were fully aware of the connection between the Divine Mercy devotion, Divine Mercy Sunday and the beatification of John Paul II. It seemed obvious to me that the timing was meant to emphasize the connection. Everyone I knew commented on the fact that John Paul II died on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday.

    I don’t think there’s an explicit connection between the devotion to the Sacred Heart and Divine Mercy, but implicitly they have always seemed very similar to me. The painting of Divine Mercy was exactingly described by Sr. Faustina (she worked with an artist to try to get the image just right) and she has some explanation of the symbolism in her writing. Jesus directed her to have the image made in one of her visions (I think she was only partially satisfied with the artist’s work, but it was the best she could get).

    Also, the Divine Mercy chaplet (said on a rosary but with different prayers) and the Divine Mercy novena (a nine day prayer from Good Friday to the Sunday after Easter) are becoming rather popular in some circles. Both of these came from Sr. Faustina’s vision.

    The Sacred Heart tradtion has less of these kinds of devotions associated with it (a litany prayer, keeping the image in one’s home, and the morning offering prayer are the three I’m aware of).

    Both are based on private revelations to women who tried to pass on the main points of the revelations, and both have visual representations associated with them. Both have very nice stories and teachings associated with them, and are very much directed to moving the heart of the believer rather than setting forth difficult theological matters that primarily engage the intellect.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    I’m not Roman Catholic but I am very interested in the idea that someRoman Catholics think JPII is a saint and other think he isn’t. The way this seems to be playing out in the media is that some people think he should be made a saint and others think he shouldn’t be. I learned on this blog that RC dogma is that one is a saint first and what the church does is merely recoglze the fait acompli. The story that interestes me is that some people think who their church canonizes is up for debate. It seems that that is the real controversy, not whether or not JPII should be canonized. That latter question isn’t even important if it is true that he is or isn’t a saint regardless of what is done on earth.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    the Vatican II reformists not only tried to get rid of popular private devotions to Mary but downplayed the idea of God’s mercy as symbolized by “The Sacred Heart”.

    The Vatican officials who get embarassed by miracles and downplay nearly every vision of Mary (e.g. at Lipa) tried to destroy the devotion by claiming heresy; JP2, who knew both Polish and Latin, was aware of the original meaning and noted it was badly translated. So he had it retranslated, and voila, Divine Mercy was approved.

    But that is not why it became popular at the grass roots.

    The Vatican II reformers want everyone to be socially active, so not recycling is a sin, but nothing else needs o be forgiven.

    But ordinary folks know better, and realize that they make mistakes and sometimes out of passion or fear do terrible things. Since they can’t live up to the rules (new or old) and so are happy to see the concept of a loving God, who has mercy on sinners, is still there.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    OK, I was a bit lax.

    JP II was, literally, a Vat II reformer. Right?

    Watch your terms here and relate your info to the news coverage, not to Catholic politics.

  • sallyr

    John Paul II did participate in Vatican II and claimed that his pontificate was devoted to properly implementing Vatican II.

    As to the dispute among Catholics over whether John Paul II should be declared a saint — there are a couple wrinkles. Some say the process was rushed, others think his short-comings weren’t adequately weighed. Others have doctrinal or political quarrels and they want to use the attention from the beatification to make their points.

    Furthermore, John Paul II is not yet a “saint” in the full sense. He’s beatified (“Blessed Pope John Paul II”). He needs another miracle and a continuation of the process before he’s declared a saint.

    But I don’t really think there’s an actual debate about whether the Magesterium of the Church has the proper authority to declare someone is a saint.Some don’t like the process they use. Some people don’t like each and every one of the declared saints, some like some more than others, some don’t really give much attention to the saints at all. I think the great majority of people like every saint they’ve ever heard of and are happy when the ranks of cannonized saints increases.

    If the Church declares someone is a saint, I’m pretty sure that those who don’t like that person just ignore him. For instance, some people aren’t all that keen on St. Pio (used to be called “Padre Pio”). But I don’t think those who dislike him are very upset about it. It’s not the stuff that leads to people leaving the church, at least not that I’ve ever heard of.

  • Passing By

    mattk -

    There is nothing Catholics won’t argue about. It’s hardly a story that some of us disagree about the canonization of Blessed Pope John Paul II.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    And what does that have to do with my post?

  • Passing By

    The same thing as matt’s #3.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    So see my remark at No. 5.

    Come on folks.


  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    Another element that I find disturbing in some of the JP2 coverage is the mistranslation of “Santo Subito.” The word subito is best translated “quickly” or “soon.” It does not mean “now.”

    For instance, this in the LA Times: Tim Rutten: Is Pope John Paul II fit for sainthood?

    Before the church formalized the process of canonization, saints simply were proclaimed by those who admired them, and something like that already is occurring with the Polish-born pontiff, whose beatification celebration — like his funeral six years ago — rang with chants of “santo subito”: sainthood now.

    You’d think this important nuance would be easily confirmed and fixed.

  • zipping

    The Church doesn’t “make” John Paul II a saint. God makes people saints. The idea is that God wants certain people to be recognized by the Church as saints, to be honored, emulated, to give glory to God, to teach, to inspire, to intercede, to point out certain aspects of the faith, etc.

    So the Church has a process to try to recognize whether some person who died is such a saint, since they are kind of treasures.

    There are many, many more people who are saints than those who are eventually canonize (at least we hope so!). To be a saint just means you are in heaven.

    So if someone says “I don’t think John Paul should be made a saint” they probably mean he’s not got the characteristics and special signs that demonstrate God want us to give him the kind of attention that cannonized saints receive. I don’t think they mean that they know he’s not in heaven (so either in purgatory or hell). Or else they just don’t know what they are talking about and think sainthood is just like the Academy Awards or something.

  • Dan

    “Subito” has the sense of “immediately” in Italian and so “Saint now” is not an incorrect translation. The best literal translation might be “Saint right away.”

  • Passing By

    tmatt -

    I’m not trying to be difficult, but mattk’s point, and my response, are journalistic issues.

    My observation is that the press has a bi-polar approach to Catholic matters: either it’s a monolithic structure of drones marching in lockstep or it’s riven (on the verge of collapse) by dissent, usually along liberal/conservative lines. I’m exaggerating to make the point, but not entirely. It’s part of how (many) journalists don’e “get Catholicism”.

    The reality is that Catholics fight all the time about lots of things other than sex. I’m not talking about liberal Catholics vs. “the Vatican”, but faithful, believing “sweat the details” Catholics who disagree, sometimes in a civil manner, sometimes not (read some Catholic blogs). You can dismiss this as “politics” if you like, but how it gets reported is a, to my eyes, a real journalistic issue.

    As an aside, I think this blog’s commentary on Catholic matters (or the coverage thereof) would be greatly improved by the additional of a Catholic journalist to your group. Just my opinion.

  • Kyle


    Just an intuition here, not a thoroughly thought-out position, but some things really can only be seen through the eyes of faith. I wonder if the Divine Mercy connection with Blessed John Paul II is one of them. Certainly there are objective things as you note with the confluence of dates of death and beatification and with Blessed John Paul’s remarkable personal history relating (providentially, I believe) to the devotion that might draw a person’s attention. But is it providence or coincidence? If one only believes it is the latter, perhaps it looks like a less significant part of the story.

    I say this as a person who thinks the life of Blessed John Paul is a magnificent, miraculous, public testimony to the reality that God is the Lord of History. And maybe that’s really the problem: One cannot look very long at Blessed John Paul’s life without bumping into what strongly looks like divine providence, and so it’s hard to write about that life without appearing to advance the idea it exists. How would a first century reporter committed to maintaining neutrality on the question of Christ’s divinity cover the miracle of the loaves or the raising of Lazarus? It’s a tough assignment.

  • Matt

    Tmatt, continuing to connect the dots you raised in your column, I am wondering whether a saint’s feast day is ever movable (i.e., X days before/after Easter), rather than a fixed date on the calendar. In other words, if JPII is eventually canonized, might his feast day be permanently observed on the vigil of Divine Mercy?

  • Rick

    Matt, having JPII feast day as the day before Divine Mercy Sunday would be a problem. Easter Sunday and the week after it are “the Octave of Easter”. The primary purpose of the Octave is to further celebrate and contempate the mystery of the Resurrection. Divine Mercy Sunday (part of the Octave of Easter) can be made to fit into the mysteries celebrated (although some/many people feel like it is a forced fit). The feast or memorial of John Paul II would not fit with the purpose of the Octave. The feasts and memorials of Saints that fall on the days of the Easter Octave are not celebrated. The Octave takes precedence.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    That is the point I am asking. I think the HARD FACTS in this case — and the Polish links — should have been mentioned. Too many facts. Too many connections.


    I know about the octave and how that SATURDAY cannot be a major feast day for a saint. That’s why I asking if they might be CONNECTED somehow. Sunday after? The Monday after Divine Mercy? I was raising a liturgical question, not attempting to say there already is an answer.

  • http://attheturnofthetide.blogspot.com CS

    Let us not overlook the several other aspects of the day which add to its significance.

    –Divine Mercy Sunday
    –Last day of the Octave of Easter
    –May 1–first day of the month of Mary
    –Feast day of St. Joseph the Worker, which was the Church’s response to the international labor day of the Communists. Further, John Paul II was born Karol Josef Wojtyla and beatified by Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger.
    –The day after his death ten years ago (liturgically speaking).
    –and for many American Catholics especially, the fact that bin Laden was killed on Divine Mercy Sunday forced a degree of reflection and challenged us to prayer rather than to celebration in a way that his death on another day might not have achieved.
    –though I at least was also forcibly reminded of Jan Sobieski, the gates of Vienna, and the Polish role as guardian of Europe in the face of some of the assaults from the Dar al Islam.

    Yes, the press could have commented on all this. At a certain point, I imagine the density of the symbolism might have seemed a bit much, even though–there it is.

  • Rick

    TMatt, I was responding to Matt (16.) who asked if the day before Divine Mercy Sunday could become the memorial for JPII.

  • Famijoly

    CS, a good comprehensive list of the liturgical connections in John Paul II’s beatification. Except that, liturgically speaking, it was six years after his death, not 10.

    I thought about the connection to St. Joseph the Worker in the sense of Joseph being the husband of Mary, the legal father of Jesus, and the head of the Holy Family, and that Karol Wojtyla spent time in a labor camp. I did not make the connection to the baptismal middle name of the beatified pope and the baptismal first name of the beatifying pope. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • zipping

    They already announced the date of his feast day. It’s October 22nd, the anniversary of his innauguration as pope in 1978.

  • Dave

    Totally aside, I got fooled by the “Polish math” part of the headline. Poles contributed mightily to the modern formulation of symbolic logic (well, modern when I learned about it as a freshman 50 years ago) and I wondered what that stuff was doing in GR. ;-)

  • Julia

    Speaking of math – Copernicus was a Polish priest.

    The Polish King Jan Sobieski’s Battle of Vienna that turned back the last serious push Eastward by the Turks began on September 11th.

    More symbolism and content is the date of May 1st when John Paul was instrumental in bringing about the downfall of Communism in his homeland and Eastern Europe. The huge Communist military marches on May 1st were held in Warsaw as well as Moscow.

    I’ve not seen anybody mention that Sundays in the liturgical year are usually not given over to the honor of saints or specific devotions. The Feast of the Sacred Heart, for instance, is always 19 days after Pentecost which is always a Friday. I couldn’t find any other Sunday honoring a devotion and none for saints. When a fixed date for a saint’s feast lands on a Sunday, it gives way to the specific Sunday and is skipped that year or is moved to another date.


  • Julia

    Clearer language:

    …the date of May 1st considering that John Paul was instrumental in bringing about the downfall of Communism…