Attending the Canonization of Two Popes

by Sr. Martinette Rivers, OLS

The Church doesn’t make saints, good people make saints. What the Church did on April 26, 2014 was to recognize that these two great popes, John Paul II and John XXIII, lived saintly lives and were saturated in God’s love. God had a special part for them to play in the human drama of life, so both new saints lived on the world stage, for their Church, the people in the Catholic realm and those outside it and they both lived their parts well. On April 26, they were both proclaimed Saints because of this.

There must have been two million people present, if not more. I think all of Italy was out for John XXIII and all of Poland for John Paul II, not to mention others who were there from different parts of the world. Everything was very much like the Beatification, beautifully decorated Piazza, throngs of people and great joy exuding out of the hearts of all. People arrived on foot, trains, buses and planes, some even on horses. The testimony of these two great men touched the depths of our hearts and brought tears of joy to our eyes. It was an indescribable event of a lifetime!

These men came from two different worlds: one who suffered greatly in Poland where communism ruled and the other born in Italy with freedom, but both lived saintly lives, totally immersed in God. They were two popes well known by many people around the world. Both chose the path of priesthood and the Church chose them as their leaders. What examples they are for us today! They took the risk and became SAINTS. How does one go about understanding the true spiritual essence of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli of Bergamo and Karol Josef Wojtyla of Poland? If we may capture that essence, we will live our Christian lives with joy as they did. These were men who were not afraid to speak boldly, who helped to overcome the divisions between the Christians and the Jews; men who were visionaries with incredibly profound prayer lives.

We should be grateful for their call to “Be not afraid!” as we too proclaim the Gospel of Life. They were popes who broke records, John XXIII was the first Pope to hug children and allow people to touch him and broke centuries-old taboos, so many that it was hard to keep track of them. John Paul II broke a rule the first day of his election by speaking with the crowds in spite of being told only to bless them. He loved freedom and helped cause the Iron Curtain to fall. Speaking boldly he said, “Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!” He became the second lovable, touchable Pope who kissed all the children and hugged young people, moved about in the crowds. Wherever he went his gaze found yours immediately and saw your smile with affection. Looking into his smiling face and piercing blue eyes many times, I have held in my heart that mystical moment as so many others experienced. His warm handshake was different and left me emotionally touched to my very soul. I did not get to know St. John XXIII like I got to know and love St. John Paul II, but from my reading I learned a great deal about him.

The poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, describes himself as “All lost in wonder” in the presence of God. In the face of the beauty and the power of the people on the day of canonization, all were lost in wonder just as I was. Thousands had been up all night in prayer vigils, singing and sharing, so energized, so filled with admiration for both popes, faces all ‘aglo’ with the joy and presence of God in their midst. One could easily see the Catholic Church is alive. It was not only the same presence of God experienced by a poet, but the event of the year in 2014 experienced by millions of people all at the same time. Our wonderings were very profound as the crowds of onlookers moved steadily forward with no possible place to go so it seemed, with so many people present. Wonder was certainly within our reach, but the aim of everyone was to get closer to the Piazza to see one of the big TV screens set up for them. As they moved slowly, they prayed, sang, danced and smiled at everyone. The new saints were called “superstars” by the crowds and Pope Francis called them, “The Pope of Openness to the Spirit,” namely St. John XXIII, and St. John Paul II, “The Pope of the Family.”

The testimony of these two new saints not only touched Catholic hearts, but the hearts of the whole world. Hearts were united at the very seat of Christendom on the streets in Rome, where all stood awaiting the big moment.

I thought to myself that these two great popes held two very different keys during their pontificates and not only opened doors to let more “fresh air” in as did John XXIII with Vatican II, but Divine Mercy was the key held by John Paul II, who came from a distant land to Italy and abandoned himself into the hands of Divine Mercy.

Could I possibly forget the day I received Communion from the hands of St. John Paul II, or the beautiful garland he placed around my neck and then pinched my cheeks, wishing me well as I was leaving for Bangladesh? Can you imagine a saint bestowing such things on a Louisiana girl?

Both men became popes at a difficult time in the history of the Church, John XIII in 1958 and John Paul II in 1978. Yet, both men accepted their responsibility with faith, hope and trust in Divine Providence. Fortunate for the Church that these men said yes, like Mary said yes; that the Apostles said yes; like we too say yes, to our calling in life. They are now our Messengers of Hope and like them we need to ..“put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4) in order to fulfill our calling to service with all God’s people. They taught us that the Church is God’s family and that common belief identifies members of God’s family.

How incredible it is that I would be assigned to Italy during the lifetime of Pope John Paul II and live across the street from the Vatican? I’m so happy that I was able to see him in action, speak to him many times, participate in his Masses and, above all, I am so happy I was able to attend his canonization and can truthfully say, “I met a real saint.” What an honor this is for me! May Saints John XXIII and John Paul II bless each of us in the ways they know we need to be blessed.

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