John Paul the Great

Everyone expected me to be nervous. Everyone except my mother, of course. I even expected to be a little anxious. After all, you don’t come face-to-face with a living saint every day.


I was 29 years old when I met John Paul II for the first time. How I came to stand in the presence of St. Peter’s successor is a long and interesting story best left for another time. But suffice it to say that it has the fingerprints of God all over it.


When I arrived at the Portone di Bronzo—the bronze door under the colonnade in St. Peter’s Square leading to the papal apartments—in October of 1997, I certainly was a little nervous. I’d been to my share of important events before, but being invited to Mass in the Pope’s private chapel was a big deal—especially for a farm boy from Saskatchewan!


A Swiss Guard led me and my brother Fred up some stairs, through a courtyard, and up more stairs until we reached the top floor of the apostolic palace. We were greeted by then-Monsignor Stanisław Dziwisz, the pope’s long-time personal secretary.


We left our backpacks behind as he led us to the chapel. As I rounded the corner, my heart skipped a beat. I must have gasped, too. A mere 30 feet in front of me was the Vicar of Christ—and he glowed. John Paul was kneeling before the tabernacle, deep in prayer. The moment lasted a couple seconds, but for me time stood still. It was entirely surreal, and any anxiety I carried with me instantly evaporated.


We took our seats in the chapel, which seated maybe 35 people, including the eight priests concelebrating with the pope that day. The image of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the stained-glass panels on the walls and ceiling, and the bird of paradise flowers beside the altar were permanently etched in my mind that day.


The Mass, in Latin, was short with no homily. The altar was against the wall, so the Holy Father faced the tabernacle while celebrating Mass, and he struggled a little to rise after he genuflected. He didn’t distribute Communion himself, but it was nonetheless an extraordinary honor to receive the Blessed Sacrament consecrated at the hands of this holy man.


Pope of the family

The 20th century gave us many remarkable saints who have shaped the Church and the world and will do so for centuries to come: Mother Teresa, Padre Pio, Maximilian Kolbe, Josemaría Escrivá, and John XXIII. But John Paul II stands out for so many of us as a super-saint because of his many gifts, his contributions to the Church, and his obvious holiness.


So when the Vatican announced last fall that John Paul would be raised to the honors of the altar on Mercy Sunday 2014, no one was surprised. In fact, shortly after his death in 2005, the faithful insisted on his canonization.


Italians held signs aloft at his funeral that read “Santo Subito!” or “Sainthood Now!” Nine years later, their demands were met, with nearly a million people on hand to witness the largest gathering at the Vatican in history.


Between 800,000 and a million people jammed St. Peter’s Square on April 27 (spilling down the Via della Conciliazione all the way to the Tiber River) and dozens of squares in Rome, most watching on big screens set up for the canonization of two popes: John Paul and John XXIII.


In his homily at the canonization Mass, Pope Francis declared John Paul the “pope of the family” to great applause from the massive congregation. The Holy Father prayed for the new saint’s intercession as the Church prepares for the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in October, saying that “from his place in heaven, he guides and sustains us.”


Speaker and author Jason Evert, who attended the canonization, said that John Paul wanted to be remembered as the “pope of the family.”


“When he was called the pope of the family, that was my favorite moment of the whole canonization,” said Evert, whose most recent book, Saint Pope John Paul the Great: His Five Loves, was published last spring. “I was thrilled that Pope Francis alluded to that passing conversation that John Paul had. I think it ties in very well with the upcoming synod because John Paul’s writings—in particular the Theology of the Body, his appreciation of human love, and his love for families—is really going to play a key role in the synod. The truth is that as the family goes, so goes the whole world.”


Papal biographer George Weigel says the title “pope of the family” is fitting for John Paul, who spent a great deal of time with families and young people—before and after his election to the Chair of Peter.


“His 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, the Theology of the Body, John Paul II’s ‘papal feminism’—all of these were a brilliant defense of the family as the basic unit of civilized society,” said Weigel, who penned two definitive biographies on the new saint. “This traditional notion of family is under assault throughout the world today, as Pope Francis fully understands, so I thought the title was quite appropriate.”


Author and theologian Ralph Martin met John Paul half a dozen times. A consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, Martin says the saintly pope encouraged people in the vocation of marriage and family.


“He not only taught about it in Familiaris Consortio, but he modeled it in almost unforgettable images of him loving people, hanging out with laypeople, sharing the life of the people,” Martin explained. “Long before Pope Francis ever said, ‘You’ve got to have the smell of the sheep on you,’ John Paul had the smell of the sheep on him.”


Lasting legacy

Two popes have had the title “the great” appended to their names: Leo and Gregory. Both men were fearless leaders in difficult times. Both were extraordinary examples of holiness, as witnessed in their preaching, teaching, evangelization, and leadership—especially in times of persecution and hardship.


Will we soon have a new “great” saint?


Many Catholics have already taken to calling the Polish pope “St. John Paul the Great,” including a San Diego-based university. Weigel told me that “the Great” isn’t a formal title granted by the Vatican, but rather spontaneously “given by the people of the Church, and as that’s already begun in the case of John Paul II, I think we can expect the usage to continue.”


What about Doctor of the Church? Weigel says it’s possible, but there’s no rush.


“I think some time is required here,” he explained. “Doctor of the Church is a title formally bestowed, indicating that someone has made a singular and lasting contribution to the Church’s self-understanding. It will take a while to make that assessment in the case of John Paul II.”


While honorary titles might take some time, Evert says John Paul’s impact on the Church of today is massive. While there’s no easy way to summarize his impact on the people of God, Evert believes that careful examination reveals the secret to the pope’s sanctity.


“It’s easy to look at the big things he did—World Youth Day, the New Evangelization, Theology of the Body, his ecumenical efforts—the list is endless,” he said. “I think the greatest legacy he leaves is the primacy of the interior life.”


Evert points to John Paul’s reputation for deep, fervent, hours-long prayer and a prayer he prayed with young people gathered in Rome for Eucharistic Adoration, just a few weeks before he died: “Help us, Jesus, to understand that in order ‘to do’ in your Church, also in the field of the New Evangelization that is so urgently needed, we must first learn ‘to be,’ that is, to stay with you, in your sweet company, in adoration.”


The secret to John Paul’s sanctity, Evert said, was his devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and his passion for giving everything to the Lord in prayer.


“We can get so hung up on productivity and results and success that we forget that fruitfulness in apostolic life ultimately comes from contemplation,” he said. “John Paul was so rooted in the interior life. The communists who spied on him said he would pray six to eight hours a day.


“As Pope, he would get up between 4:00 to 5:30 in the morning to pray before Mass. One priest told me that he probably made 20 visits a day to the Blessed Sacrament. Although history will remember him for all of his theological and apostolic contributions, I think the deeper we look at his life, the more we learn where that came from. It was the fruit of his interior life.”


Evert’s appraisal of John Paul’s legacy brought me back to October 1997. That was why he glowed. That was why my heart skipped a beat when I saw him. John Paul had the glow of sanctity long before his canonization day!

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