Pope Benedict XV I approves decrees recognizing the heroic virtue of Pope John Paul II and Pope Pius XII.

Ever since the chant of “Santo subito!” arose spontaneously from the congregation at the funeral of John Paul II, the accelerated cause for beatification of the Polish Pontiff has been a topic of constant comment both in Rome and in Krakow. The rumors come and go. But the report that appeared in Italy’s Panorama magazine in mid-December—that Pope John Paul II would be declared “venerable” at an ordinary consistory on December 19— seemed credible. Indeed it was.

Appearing on the newsstands just a few days before the formal announcement, Panorama accurately predicted that Pope Benedict XVI would approve a decree testifying to the “heroic virtue” of his predecessor. Such a finding would give the late Pontiff the title “venerable,” and the subsequent approval of a miracle would fulfill the only remaining requirement for his beatification.

The magazine went further. Several miracles attributed to the intercession of the Polish Pontiff are already under investigation, and Vatican officials feel confident that one will soon be approved. Panorama suggested that tentative plans are already been discussed for the beatification of John Paul II in October 2010.

The early report in Panorama was plausible for several reasons. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints typically prepares a series of decrees each December regarding candidates for beatification and canonization. These decrees are generally approved by the Pope at an ordinary consistory— a meeting of all the cardinals who are in Rome at the time—shortly before Christmas. And in November, several informed sources at the Vatican had told reporters that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints had voted to approve a finding of “heroic virtue” in the cause of John Paul II, and would prepare a decree to that effect for the Pope’s approval.


The December 19 date arrived, and the accuracy of the Panorama report was borne out in an official announcement by the Vatican press office. Pope Benedict approved the predicted decree on the heroic virtue of Pope John Paul II. But the announcement contained a surprise as well: the Pope also approved a similar decree on the heroic virtue of Pope Pius XII.

There were several other noteworthy decrees included in the December 19 announcement. The Vatican officially recognized the 1984 murder of Solidarity chaplain Father Jerzy Popieluszko by Polish Communist intelligence offi cers as a martyrdom, preparing the way for his beatifi cation. Miracles were approved to complete the requirements for canonization of Blessed André Bessett e (1845- 1937), the Holy Cross brother whose reputation for piety drew countless thousands to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal; and for the canonization of Blessed Mary MacKillop (1842- 1909), the Australian nun who will now become that nation’s first native saint.

Still, it was the decrees regarding the two former Pontiff s that drew the most public notice. While the announcement regarding John Paul II was widely expected and welcomed, the decree on Pius XII was a surprise.

In May 2007, it had been widely reported in the Italian media (although never officially acknowledged at the Vatican) that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints had voted to approve a decree testifying to the heroic virtue of the wartime Pontiff . All that was required was the Pope’s approval for that decree, and Pius XII would have the title “venerable.”

But the months passed without an announcement from Rome—presumably because Pope Benedict chose to postpone his approval of that decree. By the end of 2007, some Vatican-watchers were ready to conclude that the cause for beatifi cation of Pius XII had stalled. In 2008, as the Vatican planned a series of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of that Pope’s death, the director of the Vatican press office told reporters that there was no reason to expect the beatification in the near future.

That decree was presumably sitt ing on the Pope’s desk, awaiting action. In his own comments on the 50th anniversary of the death of Pius XII, Pope Benedict swept aside any suspicion that he himself was skeptical about the merit of the wartime Pontiff . He said that the work of Pius XII during World War II bore witness to “a love made manifest in the intensity with which he promoted works of charity in defense of the persecuted, with no distinction of religion, ethnicity, nationality, or political views.”


Responding to a new chorus of public complaints from Jewish leaders, the Vatican released a statement on December 23 explaining that by declaring Pope Pius XII “venerable,” the Church does not intend to cut off critical discussion of policy decisions that Pontiff made during World War II. At the same time the Vatican statement defended Pope Pius XII against charges that he failed to defend Jewish people from the Holocaust.

Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press offi ce, suggested that the process leading to beatifi cation is generally understood by knowledgeable Catholics, but “may merit certain explanation for the larger public, in particular the Jewish public who are understandably very sensitive to all things concerning the historical period of World War II and the Holocaust.”

In declaring that an individual practiced “heroic virtue,” the Vatican statement continued, the Church was affi rming “the witness of Christian life that the person showed,” but not necessarily commenting in any way on “the historical impact of all his operative decisions.” Citing the words of the late Pope John Paul II—spoken as he explained the beatifi cation of another controversial pontiff , Pope Pius IX— the statement said:

In beatifying one of her sons, the Church does not celebrate the specific historical decisions he may have made, but rather points to him as someone to be imitated and venerated because of his virtues, in praise of the divine grace which shines resplendently in them.

The Vatican statement welcomed a continued study of the role that Pope Pius XII played during World War II. However, the statement pointed out: “In any case, Pius XII’s att ention to and concern for the fate of the Jews—something which is certainly relevant in the evaluation of his virtues—are widely testified and recognized, also by many Jews.”

The Vatican also said that although Popes John Paul II and Pius XII were declared venerable on the same day, their causes for beatifi cation are separate, and there is “no reason to imagine that any future beatifi cation will take place together.”


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