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March 22, 2006:

Remembering John Paul II One Year Later
by Jon M. Sweeney

With at least 1.1 billion members, Catholicism is the world’s largest religious denomination, and its spiritual leader is one of the most influential people today. Presidents and prime ministers go out of their way to court the pope’s opinion and approval. Therefore it’s quite amazing how quickly the beloved John Paul II seems to have faded from public memory. Less than a year after his death (on April 2, 2005), it is difficult to find people talking about his ministry, life, and legacy.

The current pope is another matter altogether. There have been hundreds of books published about Pope Benedict XVI, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Worldwide media attention has centered on discovering and speculating about the ideas and intentions of the new pope, and how he will or will not be similar to John Paul II. On the whole, however, publishers have been disappointed with the sales of these quickly published pope books. Perhaps readers have been looking for something deeper.

Benedict XVI himself has already published an encyclical (on Love), and his publishers around the world have wisely reissued many of his theology books with new covers to reflect the name change of the author. More importantly, Benedict XVI has a couple of new books that are coming soon: meatier tomes that will answer the questions of both Catholics and more general spiritual seekers. Look for Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a series of 598 questions and answers, at the end of this month, and What It Means to Be Christian, only 100 pages but all devoted to a central question facing billions of people today.

The latter title should be especially interesting to both Catholics and non-Catholics alike since it will undoubtedly set forth the pope’s conception of Catholics’ role in the societies in which they live. Given their influence in American politics (breaking all precedent, the Republican candidate took more Catholic votes than the Democrat in the last presidential election), this book could affect all our lives, regardless of our religious affiliation. What It Means to Be Christian is to be published at the end of July.

Though a major retrospective about the legacy of John Paul II has yet to be published, there have been many repackaged collections of his spiritual reflections. I, for one, look forward with real trepidation to the publication this September of John Paul II for Dummies and The Life of Pope John Paul II in Comics (I’m not kidding).

A couple of made-for-television movies about the former leader of the world’s Catholics have also appeared, one of which starred Academy-award winner Jon Voight as John Paul (see "I'm Not a Pope—But I Play One On T.V.").

Somewhere—probably in Rome—there are many devout Catholics working on the primary source material for those future major books about John Paul II. For the time being, material focuses on the former pope’s beatification, which appears to hinge on the recovery from Parkinson’s disease of a young nun in France.

The Associate Press reported on March 13 that “The sudden recovery of a young French nun suffering from Parkinson’s disease is at the heart of the sainthood case for Pope John Paul II.” According to how saints are declared in the Catholic Church, one miracle must be confirmed for beatification (to be called “Blessed”) and then another to be canonized (“Saint”). These miracles almost always come about as result of prayers made to the candidate after his or her death. If a healing or some other special result happens, it is said that the candidate has interceded to God in heaven for the favorable response.

The young French nun who made it known that she prayed to Pope John Paul II for intercession and healing has now inexplicably been healed. The nun (as well as many of the sisters in her religious community) prayed to John Paul because she had been diagnosed with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, an ailment that the former pope suffered from for many years.

Chances are good that we will soon be acknowledging “Blessed” John Paul II, and then eventually, John Paul “the Great” or “Saint” John Paul. His beatification, notwithstanding, the more consequential decisions for us today revolve around how John Paul’s legacy will be interpreted in the near future, and what priorities the world’s largest religious denomination will set next.

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including BORN AGAIN AND AGAIN: THE SURPRISING GIFTS OF A FUNDAMENTALIST CHILDHOOD.

More by Jon Sweeney.

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