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Saints Among Us
September 16, 2019
The canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII is a very exciting experience for Catholics and an excellent opportunity for evangelization and growth in faith. Even though most non-Catholics don’t recognize saints, they do recognize people who have done great things. We live in an age when many people recognize the great things that St. John Paul II, Blessed Mother Theresa (though not yet declared a saint), St. Maximilian Kolbe and others have done. Non-Catholics don’t stop recognizing those things after the person dies, but many of them think the great things stop occurring after the person dies. As Catholics we believe the saints have gone to heaven where they remain just as much a part of the body of Christ as they were here on earth, if not even more so. Because of their exemplary holiness while they fought for truth, beauty and goodness here on earth, they are able to do even greater things for us when they reach heaven and are united with Christ. They are actually even more alive than they were here on earth.
I was born after Pope John XXIII had passed away and I was relatively oblivious to Pope Paul VI because of all the other wonders of youth. Pope John Paul I was only in Peter’s chair for 33 days, so I wasn’t familiar with him either. Therefore, the first Pope I really knew was Pope John Paul II. To me, Pope John Paul II was a larger than life figure who reshaped the world’s relationship with Christ and charted a brave new course for the Catholic Church as it prepared for the new millennium. As I continue to read and learn about him, I know I should have paid more attention to him than I did in my younger years. I don’t know why, but I didn’t even go to see him when he was in Iowa or Colorado. The opportunity never even came up. I suspect that I wasn’t ready for such an experience and God knew it. I do remember watching his last few days on earth by tuning in to EWTN and then watching his funeral as well. That was a very educational and profound experience. That is when I started learning more about the amazing life he had provided to us.
I was actually planning to see Pope John Paul II when I was traveling to Europe in May, 1994. I was in my early 20’s at the time. I was going to visit a buddy of mine, Jimmy, who was in the U.S. Air Force and stationed in Germany. My plan was to spend a couple of weeks with Jimmy, then hop on some trains and backpack around Europe for a couple more weeks on my own. A priest friend of mine suggested that I may be able to get an audience with the Pope if I could make it to Rome. Rome was in my plans, so we started working on the possibility until the world learned that Pope John Paul II had fallen and broken his leg, requiring surgery and a long recovery. We stopped working on the audience at that point. I still visited the Vatican, but Pope John Paul II was still recovering, so there was no general audience or any other audience on that trip.
I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but I was probably closer to Pope John Paul’s heart earlier on that same trip when Jimmy and I visited Krakow and spent some time at Wawel Castle and the amazing Archcathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and Wenceslaus. It was in this church that Karol Wojtyla, who in 1978 became Pope John Paul II, was ordained to the priesthood, offered his first Mass, and was ordained Kraków’s auxiliary bishop. It was in Krakow that St. John Paul II suffered through the Nazis and later the communist attacks on the Church and the people of Poland. Pope John Paul II had a profound love for the Polish people, the history of his country and Krakow. It was difficult for him to accept his election as pope because he felt such an obligation to the Polish people and the struggle they faced with communism before the Solidarity movement finally brought freedom. Saint John Paul the Great was a big part of the Solidarity movement. I often think back on my visit to Poland, which was soon after they had shed the shackles of communism. It was like stepping back in time. I look forward to returning there someday soon.
As for my visit with Saint John Paul the Great, that had to wait until 2012, when Carmen and I visited the Vatican. We were able to pause for a few minutes at his tomb in St. Peter’s, where I was finally able to get physically close to the man who will go down in history as having a positive impact on more human beings that nearly every human that has ever walked the earth. Although he can’t claim to have impacted the most, he’s in good company, as the person who had the most impact was Jesus Christ. Maybe I was finally ready for the experience.
Sts. John Paul the Great and John XXIII are now very close to all of us. The canonization doesn’t make John Paul the Great or John XXIII saints, God has already taken care of all that. Canonization simply recognizes the fact that they are saints. We can welcome them into our lives with full faith and confidence that they will help us unite our own will with Christ and together, do great things in our own small way, in our family or community, but most significantly in our own relationship with Christ. The best way to achieve this is to read about the saints, learn about their lives and then follow their example and inspiration.