Tomorrow morning at four o’clock (EDT) the Mass at which Pope John Paul II will be declared “blessed” will begin in the exact place where little more than six years ago he lay for his funeral Mass. I have thought a lot about this moment since the announcement of his beatification and particularly about my feelings about him and experiences with him, most of which I have already shared with you these past five days. First, it is extremely unusual for anyone like myself to say that on many occasions I shared Eucharist, the stage, the airplane, a helicopter, prayer with a “Blessed” now only one verifiable miracle away from sainthood. On the final day of World Youth Day 1993 and before their departure for Rome, Bishop Stanislaus Dziwisz brought me unsolicited the gold vestment the Pope had worn on Saturday at Denver’s Cathedral for his Mass with the bishops of the United States and elsewhere gathered for World Youth Day. I still have it and wear it. Soon it will be a third-class relic, something which touched the person of a saint. I should probably retire it and never use it again – it has his coat of arms on the back. As he grows closer to sainthood, I think I grow more unworthy but I doubt if he would think that.
John Paul II was at heart a simple man. He did not put on airs, seek to impress though he could get his message across better than a lot of other people. There is that marvelous picture of him (above) with his right hand raised in blessing and his white shirt under the cassock unbuttoned at the wrist where he had forgotten to attach the cuff link. Sometimes his cassocks would be rumpled. That mattered little to him. He was consumed with preaching the Gospel and living the Gospel and thus was the consummate evangelizer – an evangelist something like Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, telling the world about Jesus. Even non-Catholics had great respect for him and for his message as was evidenced by the near universal sense of loss expressed at the time of his death.
I have mentioned before he did not seem to take great concern in managing the vast Church he was chosen to lead. He left that to others. And contrary to what some people would or are saying, I don’t think he personally had any personal favorite people except friends from Poland. The doorkeeper and the one who made the judgments about who was worthy of the Pope’s presence and attention was his life-long personal secretary, Don Stanislaus Dziwisz. There rested the true source of access in his papacy. If you passed muster with later Bishop Dziwisz and now a Cardinal, you were almost always OK with the Holy Father. In the days just before the announcement of my appointment as bishop of St. Petersburg, Father David Toups, then a seminarian at the North American College met Bishop Dziwisz who knowing that he was from St. Petersburg said “soon a new bishop for you. You will like him!”
Saints do not get to be saints because every decision they made in life was correct or perfect. They are saints because of their personal holiness, their self-sacrificing service to the Gospel imperatives. Some of this negative criticism coming in advance of the beatification tomorrow reminds me of the run-up to World Youth Day of which I wrote on Wednesday – controversy, disdain, disbelief that Catholics could care for this man the way they do, etc. Yet polls indicate that this week 93% of all American Catholics surveyed love Pope John Paul II and are happy he is being recognized not as someone who always got it right in everything (except in matters of faith and morals) but as someone who was personally deeply holy. Quite frankly, he was the Pope who made us proud to be Catholic and I don’t think the naysayers will penetrate that reality this time as they failed to do in Denver. Pope Paul VI was perhaps a better manager of the Church worldwide and the Curia but he did not have the gifts of language facility, personal charm and charism, electricity which Blessed John Paul II was able to generate. Personally holy Paul VI was but it did not come through the way it did for his successor once removed.
Blessed John Paul II was always energized by a crowd. He sought out the spotlight and used it well for the good of the Gospel. With well over a hundred trips outside of Italy and several hundred outside of Rome but within Italy, he was a Pope of and for the people, no longer a “prisoner of the Vatican”. His focus was applying the Gospel to daily life. He begged the officers of the Conference at one pranzo or lunch to send him names of deeply holy, saintly married couples. He lamented that there were too few of them in the role of saints and that marriage deserved as much saintly regard as the priesthood or religious life. On another occasion when the Jewish community of the United States was up in arms about the rumored proposal that Queen Isabella of Spain would soon begin the process toward canonization, I knew she did not have a chance when his answer was “it is very difficult for royalty to become saints.”
Additionally, Blessed John Paul II had an unerring sense of popular piety and what it needed and when it could he helpful. There were many skeptics here in the United States church when he announced that the millenial year, 2000, would be a special year of Jubilee for the Church. Critics here said out loud, the time for Holy Years and great public religious celebrations had long passed. Well, the millions who came through Rome on the Millennial Holy Year did not think so and the Pope made a believer out of me that he sure knew a lot better than I what people would respond to when called to expressions of devotion and popular piety. Lots of Americans including about 150 with me from this diocese observed the Holy Year in 2000 and it was a success far beyond the imagination of many. He was almost infallible in knowing what would work to reawaken, even for an instant or a year, the deepest religious feelings of Catholics beginning with World Youth Days through the two Holy Years of his p0ntificate.
So today is more than a day for his native Polish people, it is a day for the whole Church. Did it come too quickly, history will ultimately be the judge. Pope St. Pius X, the last Pope to be beatified (and later canonized) took thirty-seven years to reach this moment but for this participant of the energy of his pontificate, I thank God I am alive for the moment. With Blessed John Paul II’s soul mate, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, I have now touched and been touched by two people whom the Church universal will likely soon refer to as “saints” but it didn’t take the process to convince me that these two were in different ways extraordinarily holy people.
So it has taken me this week about 7,500 words to share some of my experiences in my lifetime with this extraordinary moral force. I shall record the events in Rome and watch them when I can as I have an extremely busy week-end. But it will be wonderful to watch that vast piazza at St. Peters and the surrounding streets burst once again with people chanting as I know they will, “santo subito.” Blessed John Paul II, intercede with the Father to whom you are now close, to help this local Church serve all of God’s people.