The blessed John Paul II. A Christ-centered legacy?


Leonardo De Chirico is a theologian, church planter, and now pastor of an evangelical congregation in Rome, Italy. Dr. De Chirico’s Ph.D. dissertation and much of his ministry has been dedicated to helping Christians understand and relate to the Catholic Church with gospel integrity. In the following article, he considers the legacy of Pope John Paul II in view of the pontiff’s upcoming beatification (on May 1st) and the recent interest into John Paul on the part of Evangelicals. 

Karol Wojtyła (1920-2005), since 1978 better known as Pope John Paul II, has been one of the most influential men of the XX century. A quick look at the titles of biographies about him shows the magnitude of the man: “The man of the end of the millennium” (L. Accattoli), “Witness to hope” (G. Weigel), “The man of the century” (J. Kwitny), “Pilgrim of the absolute” (G. Reale), “The defeater of communism” (A. Santini). As is always the case with human analyses of human biographies, celebrative voices abound as well as critical readings. Other titles point to the controversial aspects of his life: “Victory and decline” (C. Cardia), “The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy” (J. Cornwell), “The Wojtyła enigma” (J. Arias), “The last Pope king” (L. Sandri).

His life was at the centre of the major affairs of the XX century: the tragedy of Nazism and the trauma of the Second World War, the apex and fall of Communism, the Second Vatican Council and its debated implementation, the apparent triumph of Western democracy and the oppressive costs of globalization for the Majority world, the fracture of ideologies and the rise of secular hedonism. Wojtyła played a significant role in all these major events. Supporters have acclaimed his achievements in terms of navigating, surviving and overcoming the dangerous streams of our post-something world. Critics have pointed out the double-faced, contradictory trajectory of his life and his very backward looking Catholic outlook.

2011 will mark the beatification of John Paul II and the official ceremony will take place on May 1st in St. Peter’s square. Two million people are expected to take part in this massive event that will capture the attention of the whole world. So it is proper to examine the significance of the proposed beatification and how John Paul II’s legacy can be properly assessed.

First, we should inquire about the meaning of beatification in RC eyes. Beatification (from Latin beatus, blessed) is a recognition accorded by the RC Church of a dead person’s virtues and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name. The “blessed” (so she/he is named thereafter) becomes the recipient of petitions and intercession of those who offer them. Beatification is the third of four steps in the canonization process, with the highest recognition being the sainthood of an individual. Since 1983, in order to be recognized as “blessed”, the RC Church demands that one miracle be proven to have taken place through the intercession of the person. The process towards beatification can only begin five years after the person’s death. However, in John Paul II’s case, it began much earlier. Many still remember what happens at his funerals when the crowd began to shout: “santo subito!” (“Make him a saint now!”), thus putting pressure on the hierarchy to treat him as an extraordinary case – something that even a scrupulous Pope like Benedict XVI dared not to address.

The theological significance of beatification lies in several key RC doctrines. According to Vatican II, the saints “do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth” through Christ’s mediation (Lumen Gentium, n. 49, quoted also in the Catechism, n. 956). The saints, in whose category the blessed belong, have an intercessory role on the basis of their merits which are considered within the framework of the mediation of Jesus Christ. On this basis the Christian people are encouraged to pray to the blessed for healing, protection, favor, and to nurture a profound devotion to him/her made of pilgrimages, prayer groups and chains, folk spirituality, etc. Notwithstanding all the best intentions and motivations, Evangelical eyes find it difficult not to consider the theological fabric of beatification as a means that moves people away from Christ. In this respect, it is interesting to note that John Paul II himself, in his 27 years of papal reign, proclaimed as blessed 1338 people and as saints 482 people, more than all his predecessors taken together since the XVI century! In fact, it was in 1588 that modern procedures were established for the beatification process and prior to John Paul II the RC Church proclaimed 1319 as blessed and 296 as saints.

Second, how do we assess John Paul II’s legacy? Because of the stature of the man, the question is overwhelming in every respect. Amongst the vast amount of books available, one guide in particular worth noting is Tim Perry’s edited book The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment (Downers Grove, IL: IVP 2007, pp. 327). The chief reason of interest is that it is one of the few attempts to provide an evaluation from an Evangelical point of view. The book bears witness to the fact that it was under John Paul II that Evangelical attitudes toward RC began to change and become friendly, if not even cooperative. This Pope was the one who called his Church to be engaged in mission, encouraged the pro-life front, welcomed some of the Evangelical concerns in relation to Bible literacy and liturgical variety, and seemed to be closer to the Majority world than his predecessors. It also witnesses to the fact that some Evangelicals today speak of the Pope as “Holy Father” (Timothy George, pp. 309-312) – something that is not biblically natural. Moreover, in evaluating the over-all theology of his 14 encyclicals, some Evangelicals can say that it is “Bible-based, humanity-focused, Christ-centered and mission-attuned” (Jim Packer, p. 8 ) – something that sounds like a full endorsement.

Certainly there has been a significant shift of attitude and John Paul II has made quite an impression on many Evangelicals. The book edited by Perry contains positive comments on each encyclical signed by Wojtyła and the tone is close to admiration, with some minor criticism. Of course much of it is a fair summary of what the Pope wrote, yet selective in many ways. For instance there is no mention that each encyclical ends with an invocation to Mary, which does not represent a Christocentric and biblical pattern. Moreover, there is little recognition to the fact that, besides the Bible, papal encyclicals quote even more extensively sources of the tradition of the Church. The Bible is only one source amongst many, and apparently not the decisive one. On specific contents, Faith and Ratio (Faith and Reason, 1998) combines Aristotelian reason and Thomistic faith, a choice that leaves out many Biblical strands. Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church from the Eucharist, 2003) reinforces the traditional RC doctrine of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, its re-enactment of Jesus’ death and the practice of adoration of the host. Ut Unum Sint (That They Be One, 1995) claims that the Pope is willing to change the forms of his universal ministry but not the substance of his petrine office that supplements the headship of Christ on the church. Redemptoris Mater (The Mother of the Redeemer, 1987) is a Marian-centered re-telling of salvation history, something that the Bible does not encourage. The list could go on and on, yet one point must be further elaborated.

Marian devotion was a characterizing feature of John Paul II’s life. He believed the so-called secrets of Fatima, in which Mary played a decisive role, deviating the bullet when the Pope was shot in 1981 by the terrorist Ali Ağca. Apparently, the Pope believed in Marian providence, considering Mary a major player in world affairs, both earthly and cosmic, both material and spiritual. For this reason he was able to dedicate planet earth to her at the beginning of the new millennium, along with the human family and new century, pleading for protection and guidance all the while. Moreover, his personal motto was totus tuus, totally yours, with “yours” referring to Mary. In honor of his highly Marian spirituality, the beatification ceremony will take place on May 1st, at the beginning of the Marian month according to the RC liturgical calendar.

The question remains: Is the legacy of John Paul II Bible-based and Christ-centered? The answer is not as simple and straightforward as Tim Perry’s book seems to indicate. His strong Marianism, for instance, is a defining feature of his life that always qualifies the rest. The months ahead will be another opportunity to come to terms with his pontificate, his achievements and contradictions, and indeed his inherently Roman Catholic legacy.

Leonardo De Chirico

Rome, 7th February 2011

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Leonardo De Chirico is church planter in Rome (, having previously planted a church and pastored it for 12 years in Ferrara. He lectures in historical theology at IFED (Istituto di Formazione Evangelical e Documentazione) in Padova. His doctoral work was published as Evangelical Theological Perspectives in Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2003).

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. As an American living in Italy for the past 14 years, I’ve often been amazed at how Pope John Paul II and the media would re-package his beliefs and teachings for the US audience. As De Chirico aptly explains, he was on the extreme edge of Marian devotion and that would have been unpalatable to the American reader/listener. Many comments about Mary disappeared from his speeches and did not show up in books (like the one by Perry mentioned above), yet this was a hallmark of his life and ministry.

    His beautification means that people can now pray to him and he himself prayed to Mary. Does this not demean Jesus?

    I found this quote today written by John Paul II himself:
    “Totus Tuus. This phrase is not only an expression of piety, or simply an expression of devotion. It is more. During the Second World War, while I was employed as a factory worker, I came to be attracted to Marian devotion. At first, it had seemed to me that I should distance myself a bit from the Marian devotion of my childhood, in order to focus more on Christ. Thanks to Saint Louis of Montfort, I came to understand that true devotion to the Mother of God is actually Christocentric, indeed, it is very profoundly rooted in the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity, and the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption”. (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Arnoldo Mondadori Editori, 1994)

  2. “Notwithstanding all the best intentions and motivations, Evangelical eyes find it difficult not to consider the theological fabric of beatification as a means that moves people away from Christ.”

    How would asking the saints in heaven to pray for us “move people away from Christ” any more than our asking Christian friends to pray for us? How does growing in closer communion to the saints in heaven “move people away from Christ” any more than growing in closer Christian community “moves people away from Christ.” This of course leaves aside the question of whether such communion with the saints is possible, but assuming it were possible it certainly no more moves people away from Christ as communion with living Christians moves people away from Christ.

  3. Thanks Kevin. For someone like you, who is obviously informed and knowledgeable, praying to the Saints probably doesn’t pose the same threat. However, for the significant number of less initiated Catholics who see the Saints as an end unto themselves—for example, praying to Saint Jude, Christopher, or Mary to the exclusion of Christ—this is a real problem. In this instance, a “patron Saint” becomes the object of one’s personal prayers and devotion, while Jesus unintentionally fades into the background.

  4. I don’t pretend to speak for Chris or for ChrisT, and I’m no expert on the Catholic Church in America, but I am certainly disturbed by how praying to saints “moves people away from Christ” here in the “old country”.
    When my daughter was about 8 years old, we went into a quaint Catholic prayer chapel near our home in Italy. Her innocent little mind was shocked. At the center of this tiny chapel stood a 6 or 8 foot tall, ornate statue of Mary with flickering candles of those who had come to pray to her. My daughter asked me, “But, Daddy, where’s Jesus?”
    We looked and looked and finally found a small, seemingly forgotten statue of Jesus with – if I recall correctly – not one lit prayer candle. This scene repeats itself in every Italian cathedral I’ve been in. People throng to pray before the remains of their town’s patron Saint or before a statue of Mary, but Jesus generally receives little attention. Is it that way in the USA too?
    My small daughter was dismayed that Mary detracted from a personal relationship of prayer with Jesus. Shouldn’t we adults be dismayed as well?

  5. Chris:

    I’m sure that there is such a person who makes a saint the object of his prayers and devotion to the exclusion of Christ, but I have never met one. We would agree, I think, that such a person’s devotion to a saint must be rather shallow if they don’t ever bother to read about or understand what the saint was all about and who it was that transformed the saint into a holy man or woman of God. A devotion to the blessed mother that doesn’t lead one to Christ is a very shallow devotion to the blessed mother. Honestly, I can’t even imagine why a person would think that she was anything special apart from her role as the Mother of God and what Christ did for her.

    In any case, I would also guess that at least one person exists in a Protestant community who is inordinately attracted to, say, the pastor’s preaching style or personality, or to the other people in the congregation, without really getting what the pastor’s preaching is all about and what the community is all about (that is, Christ). It still wouldn’t be fair to tell Protestants that their focus on building strong community is misguided and leads people away from Christ. In the vast majority of cases, this kind of community leads people closer to Christ. Similarly, the saints would never lead a person away from their Savior, and the blessed mother always points people toward her son. If some people miss the whole point, that doesn’t mean that the saints and the blessed mother shouldn’t be asked by people who understand what they’re all about to pray to God for their intentions.

    I can’t speak to that particular chapel you visited, but the next time you visit a Catholic church, I encourage you to ask a Catholic, “Where’s Jesus?” You may be surprised. If you noticed a small box (usually behind the altar or in the front, or in a prominent chapel if in a large cathedral that attracts lots of tourists), that is what Catholics call a tabernacle. Most places of Catholic worship have one. Inside that tabernacle, most Catholic churches reserve the blessed sacrament, which we believe to be the actual body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. It is not simply an image that reminds us of Christ, but the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, right there in the church. If you noticed Catholic going down on one or two knees before sliding into a pew to pray, that is called genuflecting. That is what we do in the presence of our Savior. You also might have noticed a series of 14 paintings or carvings around the sides of the chapel. These are the stations of the cross, which follow the story of Christ’s passion. There may also have been crucifixes, perhaps on the altar or behind the altar, but usually in a prominent position. The crucifix portrays the crucified, suffering Lord. When there is not a tabernacle, Catholics bow in reverence toward the altar, a true “relic” if there ever was one, upon which the mystery of our redemption is made present during the mass. You may also notice carvings or paintings of a lamb on the front of the altar or on the ceiling above the altar. Catholics believe the true lamb is Christ, who takes away the sins of the world.

    Perhaps that particular chapel was missing all of these elements, but I am certain that the cathedrals were not. In fact, in some cases, images or statues of Mary actually portray her with the true Word of God in her womb, such as the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe (In history, Our Lady of Guadalupe led millions of Aztecs toward Christ and away from human sacrifice. An entire nation converted to Christ.)

    You write that people throng to pray before the remains of their town patron, or before a statue of Mary, but have you ever seen them on the feast of Corpus Christi during the procession? Furthermore, practicing Catholics go to see the Lord at least every Sunday, and frequently (they believe) actually eat his flesh and drink his blood. When the go to mass or to confession, they are not going for the preaching or for the brilliance of the preacher. They are going for a real experience of Christ.

    I should also point out that it would be unfair to use the events that ordinary American Protestants “flock” to in order to judge whether or not their religion leads them toward or away from Christ. Most Protestant churches celebrate the fourth of July, and most “flock” to various events surrounding this holiday. Their love for freedom and for America does not usually indicate a diminished love for Christ.

    Also consider what it would seem like for a Catholic to walk into a typical Calvinist or iconoclastic chapel. His child would probably also wonder, “Where’s Jesus?” as he looked around at the stark and empty walls, with no altar, no tabernacle, and an empty instrument of execution, if there is an image of a cross at all. If he brought his child to a protestant service that wasn’t on the first Sunday of the month, he would wonder why there was no communion. He would wonder why everyone seemed so enamored of each other and their charismatic preacher instead of Christ (though these superficial observations wouldn’t do true justice to the deep faith of many of the Protestants in attendance). I understand that the Marian stuff must all seem very weird and foreign, but I promise that if you were to open your heart to Christ’s mother — our mother — she would lead you into an even deeper relationship with our Lord and Savior.

    Peace in Christ,


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