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Do newest Catholic saints have lessons for others?

Published: Saturday, April 26 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

One young Vatican II participant, then the Bishop of Krakow, Poland, was Karol Wojtyla, who in 1978 was elected to succeed the tragically brief 33-day papacy of John Paul I. Taking the name John Paul II, Wojtyla, athletic and with a stage actor's charisma, became a globetrotting pastor, drawing crowds in the millions wherever he landed, even late in life when Parkinson's disease ravaged him.

Although his era was later tarnished by revelations of sexual abuse by priests and others working for the church, John Paul II's legacy was his global evangelism, his magnetic appeal to young people, and his pastoral influence in helping countries overthrow communism. Surviving an assassination attempt on his life and later living with a debilitating illness, the Polish-born pontiff exemplified for many the ability to thrive under trying circumstances, as well as an ability to forgive even the man, Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to kill him.

The spirituality of both popes impressed writer Eden: "John XXIII and John Paul II were men of great virtue and great holiness," she said. "Each of them lived their spirituality very deeply."

Discovering the more than 10,000 saints recognized by the Catholic Church, Eden said, "was like having all these new friends. The more I learned about their earthly lives; knowing they are in heaven, I can see their lives and how they got to heaven."

A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Eden chronicled how the lives of the saints gave her hope in her 2012 book, "My Peace I Give You."

"It was deeply healing for me to learn that there were saints who suffered flashbacks and other effects of post-traumatic stress," Eden said. "Some saints, like the former slave Josephine Bakhita, suffered flashbacks on their deathbed. Their stories helped me to overcome the misplaced guilt and shame that I suffered as a result of the sexual abuse I endured in childhood."

Saints' dual roles

Viewing the saints as both fellow intercessors and as examples highlights their dual functions for Catholics, said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author who told of his own spiritual experiences in "My Life With the Saints."

Martin said the "two traditional models" were "one, (as) the patron, the one who prays for us in heaven, and one is the companion, the example of Christian life. So a lot of it depends on the particular Catholic. Some relate mainly by asking for their prayers, some relate to them as (role) models."

The saints, Martin added, were also human: "One of the problems with the saints is that years after their death, they get tamed, and their rough edges are worn away. The saints weren't perfect, and they had their foibles and their flaws like anyone, and it's important to remember they all weren't cookie-cutter models of one another," he said.

The humanity of the popes, and their accomplishments, should endear them to all Christians, and not just Catholics, said Timothy George, an evangelical and dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.

"They're two of the greatest figures of Christianity in the last 100 years, for sure, for all Christians," George said of the popes to be cannonized. "I think John Paul II was probably the most consequential pope since the (Protestant) Reformation. … His incredible life story is just remarkable."

How should evangelicals approach the saints? "I'm not a Roman Catholic," George said. "Actually, I'm a Southern Baptist. There are deep differences between Protestants and Catholics. … We can honor them, and should, and give thanks to God for their faithful life."

And R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, said evangelicals can admire noble Christians, but shouldn't pray to them.

"The understanding that (saints) can have a continuing ministry amongst those who are now alive, by means of some type of intercession, is entirely foreign to evangelical faith and practice," he said. "The New Testament clearly teaches that every believer is a saint, and that saints are not to be venerated, but rather those who are worthy to be emulated should be emulated so far as they follow Christ."

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