VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI advanced the sainthood causes of Pope John Paul II and Pope Pius XII, declaring that both had lived lives of “heroic virtues.”
In signing the decrees Dec. 19, the pope confirmed the recommendations of Vatican officials who have studied the causes for several years. Both popes can be beatified once a miracle is attributed to their intercession.
The decree on Pope John Paul was expected, and it fueled hopes for a beatification ceremony sometime next year. Church experts are already studying a possible miracle, the cure of a French nun from Parkinson’s disease, the same disease from which Pope John Paul suffered.
The decree on Pope Pius came as a surprise. His sainthood cause has been a point of contention with some Jewish groups and others who say he failed to do enough to protect Jews during World War II – an accusation strongly rejected by Vatican historians.
After the Congregation for Saints’ Causes unanimously recommended the heroic virtues decree for Pope Pius in 2007, Pope Benedict put the cause on hold and put out the word that both critics and supporters should stop pressing the issue.
In the end, Pope Benedict paired the announcement of Pope Pius’ “heroic virtues” with that of Pope John Paul, who is remembered for his acts of friendship and bridge-building with the Jewish community.
That does not mean, however, that both popes would be beatified together. There is no Vatican timetable for verification of a miracle, and in some cases sainthood causes have waited many years for that step.
In 2005, Pope Benedict set Pope John Paul on the fast track to beatification by waiving the normal five-year waiting period for the introduction of his sainthood cause. That seemed to respond to the “Santo subito!” (“Sainthood now!”) banners that were held aloft at Pope John Paul’s funeral.
In April, the church will mark the fifth anniversary of Pope John Paul’s death. The initial diocesan phase of his sainthood cause was completed in April 2007.
In November 2008, a team of theological consultors to the Congregation for Saints’ Causes began studying the 2,000-page “positio,” the document that made the case for Pope John Paul’s beatification. After their favorable judgment, the cardinal and bishop members of the sainthood congregation met last month and gave their go-ahead for the decree of heroic virtues.
The presumed miracle for the Polish-born pontiff, meanwhile, is being studied in a five-step process that involves medical experts, a medical board, theological consultors, the members of the congregation and, finally, Pope Benedict.
The advancement of Pope Pius XII’s cause prompted immediate criticism from Jewish representatives in the United States, Israel and Europe.
In Italy, Jewish leaders suggested the decision was premature, since the Vatican’s archives on the World War II period remain sealed. An Israeli Foreign Ministry official also said it was difficult for historians to reach a judgment about Pope Pius until archives were opened, but he added that beatification of the wartime pope was an internal issue of the Catholic Church.
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder said beatification of Pope Pius XII was “inopportune and premature” as long as the Vatican archives from 1939 to 1945 remain closed, and until a consensus on his actions concerning the Holocaust is established.
Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican archives, said in 2008 that the Vatican’s five archivists would need another five or six years to catalog documents from Pope Pius’ 1939-58 pontificate.
According to church officials, the Vatican’s sainthood congregation had assembled the necessary documents for Pope Pius’s beatification cause in 2004. Subsequent evaluations by historians, theologians and a panel of cardinals and bishops resulted in the recommendation in 2007 to proceed with the advancement of the beatification process.
But later that year, in a highly unusual step, Pope Benedict appointed a commission to look at new archival information about Pope Pius and study how his beatification would affect Catholic-Jewish and Vatican-Israeli relations.
Pope Pius has been criticized by Jewish groups who said he did little to mobilize the church in defense of Jews against the Nazi extermination campaign. Other experts have published evidence to show that the late pope worked quietly but effectively to save the lives of thousands of Jews and others during World War II.
Late in 2008, marking the 50th anniversary of Pope Pius’ death, Pope Benedict praised the late pope for his extraordinary intelligence, excellent memory, great fluency in foreign languages, “remarkable sensitivity,” an unwavering dedication to God and a deep love for Christ, the church and humanity.
Pope Benedict said at the time that the church was “praying that (his) beatification cause may proceed happily.”