Pope John Paul II on Sunday moved five Catholics closer to sainthood, including Austria’s last reigning emperor and a German nun whose graphic visions of Christ’s suffering helped inspire the blockbuster movie “The Passion of the Christ.”
Cheers went up in St. Peter’s Square from a crowd of about 30,000 people when the pontiff finished reading the Latin words with which he beatified the five candidates, and banners with their images were unfurled on the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Beatification is the last formal step in the Catholic church before possible sainthood.
John Paul declared that Feb. 9 will be the church’s feast day for Anna Katharina Emmerick, a sickly, virtually illiterate nun whose gory visions of Jesus’ last hours of suffering before his crucifixion drew pilgrims to her bedside in the years before her death on Feb. 9, 1824.
“Passion of the Christ” director Mel Gibson has said he drew much of his inspiration for the bloody depiction of Jesus’ torture before his crucifixion from a book long widely held to be a faithful account of Emmerick’s visions.
The bestowing of one of the church’s highest honors on Emmerick irritated some already unhappy about the Vatican’s enthusiasm for a film some called anti-Semitic because it might be seen as depicting Jews as the major force behind Christ’s death.
Another newly beatified figure stirring controversy was Karl I, who led the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the final years of World War I. Also known in the West as Charles I, he took the throne in 1916 and worked for peace, abdicating at the end of the war, a few years before his death in 1922.
Critics have said the Vatican had no business honoring a monarch who commanded troops who used poison gas in the conflict.
The pope hailed Karl as a model “especially for those who have political responsibility in Europe today.”
Emmerick, said Jean Paul, “saw the bitter suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ and experienced it on her body” — a reference to the nun’s affliction with unexplained bleeding wounds resembling those of Jesus at his crucifixion.
All five candidates were praised “for the marvelous things that the Lord did through these good and faithful servants.”
The 84-year-old pontiff, stopping frequently for breath, struggled to pronounce his words, and let other prelates read most of his homily. John Paul has Parkinson’s disease which makes speech and walking difficult.
John Paul declared Oct. 21, the date of Karl’s marriage in 1911 to Princess Zita, as Karl’s feast day.
“He was a man of peace,” said the Rev. Ivan Csete, a pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Forestburgh, N.Y., who rode to the ceremony in a city bus crowded with Hungarian students. “History would have been different had he succeeded in 1916” in his efforts to end the war, added Csete, who said he fled his native Hungary after participating in the ill-fated 1956 uprising there against Communist rule.
Also put on the road to sainthood Sunday were an Italian-born nun, Maria Ludovica De Angelis, who helped expand hospital services for children in Argentina before she died in 1962; Joseph-Marie Cassant, a French monk who lived from 1878-1903 and who frequently meditated about Jesus on the cross; and Pierre Vigne, another Frenchman, who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries and founded an order of nuns.
In the early 1800s, Emmerick was known for nourishing herself solely on water and communion wafers.
In deciding that Emmerick merited beatification, the Vatican concluded that it is impossible to tell how much of the accounts of her visions contained in the book “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ” by German Romantic poet Clemens Brentano, came from the nun’s recounting and how much came from other writings the poet consulted.
The Vatican ruled that the required miracle for beatification included the recovery in the 19th century of a nun in Germany who prayed to Emmerick to be healed from severe tuberculosis and that of a Brazilian nun whose varicose veins were healed after she prayed to the monarch, who died in 1922. The church was ridiculed for the miracle it attributed to Karl’s intercession.