Why steal the blood of the Blessed Pope John Paul II?

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So let’s talk about the theft of that relic containing the blood of the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

For starters, I admit that this whole subject is a little strange for people who are not members of the ancient Christian churches of the East and the West.

Also, there appears to be some confusion about what, precisely, was stolen. Some reports say that robbers stole a vial of the pope’s blood, while others — BBC for example — report that the object stolen was a “piece of gauze once soaked in the blood of the late pope.”

Either way, journalists trying to cover this story face the challenge of answering one crucial question: Why would someone want a vial of the blood of someone such as this beloved pope, who will be proclaimed a Catholic saint in April?

This Religion News Service report contains several logical answers to that question. For example:

The thief or thieves made off with a large crucifix and a gold reliquary containing the vial of the blood of John Paul, who will be proclaimed a saint in April.

Once John Paul is elevated to sainthood, artifacts from his life will increase in value.

It was not immediately clear whether the intentions are to ransom the vial, sell it, or keep it for religious purposes.

Yes, there is the chance that the thieves could hold this relic for ransom. Several news reports have, thus, noted that this crime feels more like a kidnapping than an ordinary robbery.

Of course, using that same logic, the relic could also be sold as a treasure and the market price would rise with the upcoming rites to declare the Blessed John Paul II a saint.

But that only begs the ultimate question, which is suggested in the RNS report’s statement that someone may want to “keep it for religious purposes.”

So what, precisely, does “religious purposes” mean? Is the suggestion here that the goal is to sell this to a traditional Catholic, the kind of person who believes that such relics are signs of God’s power in the material world, a power that is somehow displayed in the bodies and lives of the saints? Really?

Let me make a comparison. Years ago, I had a chance to interview the Rev. Billy Graham about the process he goes through when preparing to preach. I asked him if he had a special Bible that he used in the pulpit. He laughed and said, no, he kept a stack of new Bibles for that purpose. Why? He said people often stole his Bible when he went out in public.

Stop and think about this for a minute: If you stole Billy Graham’s Bible, to whom would you show it off? Who would be impressed, as opposed to appalled? Does a devout person steal that Bible?

The bottom line: Do you sell a stolen vial of a John Paul II blood to the kind of doctrinally conservative Catholic who would want to venerate it?

Thus, some news outlets are turning that “religious purposes” answer on its head.

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Economist, New York Times tailor pope to their notions

One of the fascinating things about Pope Francis is the apparent mad rush among mainstream media scribes to recast the Bishop of Rome in their image, particularly if the image is in any way left-leaning, or, at the least, non-rightward-facing. After the conservative Blessed John Paul II and the conservative Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Jose Maria Bergoglio is now positioned in some media quarters as the Vatican’s version of the Barack Obama of 2008: At last, pontifical “change we can believe in.”

The Economist‘s Erasmus blog, is not exactly a hotbed of Christian, or Catholic, fundamentalism. It recently focused on Pope Francis’ interview with the editor of Italy’s liberal La Repubblica daily, the “atheist journalist, Eugenio Scalfari,” who elicited from the pope some rather hard words about a Vatican “bubble” that may have enclosed previous occupants of the Chair of St. Peter:

It was striking for the warmth of the “small talk” in which the two men engaged (they gave each a metaphorical embrace over the telephone while arranging to meet) and also for the pope’s devastatingly insightful comments on the corrupting effects of power, especially clerical power. “Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.” How true. This can also apply to prime ministers, head teachers, generals, perhaps even some newspaper editors (not the brilliant ones I’ve met, of course). But the pomp and circumstance of religious authority can be especially corrosive.

Nor, one might suggest, is the Roman Catholic Church the only ecclesiastical body where the top leader is, well, cosseted by praise and pomp while holding office, only to find themselves in a lonely place after a sudden departure. In the past 15 years, this writer has witnessed exactly that happen in two (very different) Christian organizations — one just a few months ago — and I’m guessing there are many similar stories elsewhere in religion-land. But I digress.

Ersasmus’ author, identified only as “B.C.” in a byline, moves beyond the “court” talk to zero in on something truly important to many wondering about where Pope Francis will lead his global flock:

The comment from Francis that upset religious traditionalists was this: “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

The Economist then notes the discomfiture of Rod (Friend of this Blog) Dreher and others about what was an almost-universalist turn in Francis’ phrasing. On the contrary, Erasmus argues, we should view the pontiff’s words through the prism of the Pampas:

Yet the pope is not merely being fashionably modern (or post-modern) when he recognises integrity in people whose metaphysical views are different from his own, and detects dishonesty among people of the church. He is speaking out of his own experience of living through an urban guerrilla war and an exceptionally brutal dictatorship in his native Argentina. He hints at this in his exchanges with the editor, recalling his youthful encounter with a communist professor, later killed by the military. He didn’t accept her materialist world-view but he did respect her as a “courageous and honest” person. Doubtless he was also deeply disappointed by the clerics who fawned on the dictators.

But Erasmus appears to have forgetten that Francis isn’t a tweedy, pipe-puffing college professor or the proprietor of an ecclesiastical Algonquin Round Table. He is the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, and as such apparently feels the need to get as many people as possible to hear what he’s saying so that his message can reach out to them. Relatability seems to be Francis’ stock-in-trade, and, after whatever remoteness some perceived in Benedict, it’s not a bad thing.

There is, however, a difference between respecting the views of others and accepting those views as equal, or making a friendly remark about folks getting along into a vote for syncretism of some kind. It’s nice to “make the world a better place,” but nothing in Francis’ comments suggests that should be the end of the matter. If Scalifari didn’t press the point, the La Repubblica editor not only missed an opportunity, he also gave Erasmus (and others) leeway to pigeonhole Francis in a way the pope might not want to be classified.

A day earlier, Jim Dwyer of The New York Times, whose beat is interesting people stories, and not religion, played the “leprosy of the papacy” card in his “About New York” column about two nuns, Sister Camille D’Arienzo and Sister Helen Prejean, the latter of “Dead Man Walking” fame.

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Miracle caused by mere memory of John Paul II?

There has been another development in the canonization case of the Blessed John Paul II, which means it’s time for another round of news stories that — to one degree or another — mangle what Catholics and members of other ancient churches believe about prayer and the saints.

Before we get going, here is a handy doctrinal reminder: For Christians, only God can perform miracles. Here’s how Father Arne Panula of the Catholic Information Center here in Washington, D.C., explained it to me in 2011:

“What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray ‘with’ us, rather than to say that we pray ‘to’ a saint,” he said.

“You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. The saint plays a role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a trivial distinction to some people, but it is not.”

Now with that in mind, check out the lede on this quick online story from The Atlantic:

The Vatican has reportedly “approved” a second miracle that can be attributed to the memory of Pope John Paul II, opening the door for him to become a full saint faster than anyone in recent history. The Vatican won’t reveal the details of the miracle just yet, but it allegedly concerns the “extraordinary healing” of a woman in Costa Rica, who recovered from a brain injury after praying to the deceased pope. A similar healing miracle was attributed to John Paul in 2011, giving him the two miracles required to reach full sainthood.

Whoa, that contains at least one totally new twist on the usual errors.

What in the world does it mean to say that the “memory” of Pope John Paul II was the cause of a miracle? Later on in the same paragraph, we have the more familiar error — the part about the healing talking place after someone “prayed to the deceased pope.”

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