As the May 1 date for the beatification of Pope John Paul II draws closer and closer, readers can expect more and more stories about that this rite means and what it does not mean. A key part of making that distinction will be explaining the steps that remain ahead for those who are trying to make the case that the man they call John Paul the Great should, in fact, be declared as a Catholic saint. This could get pretty complicated.
I don't know about you, but my palms start to sweat when it comes time for legions of mainstream journalists to explain the intricacies of Catholic law and tradition to the masses. The problem, of course, is that any headline with the word "pope" in it (let alone one that also contains the word "saint") is going to be linked to what will officially be declared as an IMPORTANT STORY by editors. Alas, this often means that the story is too important to allow the religion-beat professional, if one remains in the newsroom, to cover it. Editors think that they have to call in the real reporters, the big guns, columnists and political reporters.
So duck and cover, folks! A GetReligion reader recently sent me a Reuters report that almost certainly offers an example of what is ahead for us all:
Italian authorities and Church officials say perhaps more than a million people may attend the mass at which John Paul, who died in 2005, will be declared a blessed of the Church and move one step closer to sainthood.
The ceremony in St Peter's Square, one of several over three days, will hark back to the funeral of the charismatic pope, which was one of the biggest media events of the new century. John Paul's wooden coffin will be exhumed from its current place in the crypts below St Peter's Basilica.
After the beatification mass in the square it will be placed before the main altar inside the basilica. The closed coffin will remain there for viewing and veneration non-stop until everyone who wants to can see it, the Vatican said.
OK, "veneration" is good. That's the precise, accurate word. Bravo. However, things get a bit vague later in the story.
To be beatified, a dead person must be declared by the Church to have prompted a miracle. The Church says a 49-year-old French nun was miraculously cured of Parkinson's disease months after John Paul's death after she and fellow nuns prayed to him.
For John Paul to become a saint, the Church must declare that a second miracle occurred after the beatification ceremony.
Now, I am sure that Catholic readers would have preferred a more graceful turn of phrase than, "To be beatified, a dead person must be declared by the Church to have prompted a miracle." The problem is the vague word "prompted." Things get more complicated when the next sentence discusses the fact that the French nuns "prayed to him" -- as in John Paul II. Where is God in this process? MIA.
You see, "prompted" is simply vague. I guess that this word implies that something accurate -- that the nuns prayed to John Paul II, petitioning for him to join in their prayers for the healing of the sister. The prayers of the late pope are then said to have prompted God to perform a miracle.
That's the doctrinal sequence. But how many readers would read these vague passages in that manner?
For journalists involved in covering these issues, let me note the following information from Father Arne Panula, director of the Catholic Information Center here inside the DC Beltway. This is from a Scripps Howard column I wrote on the concept of praying WITH the saints and the mystery of how that is linked to miracles:
In press reports, this mystery is reduced to an equation that looks like this -- needy people pray to their chosen saints and then miracles happen. It's that simple. The problem, stressed Panula, is that this is an inadequate description of what Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some other Christians believe.
"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."
Journalists in our readership might want to share this information with folks who work at a nearby copy desk. This is yet another case in which precise, accurate language is needed to describe what the Catholic Church (and others) actually believe. As is almost always the case in doctrinal matters, vague is bad and clear is good.