When throngs of people began chanting “Santo Subito!” at the end of Pope John Paul II’s funeral Mass on April 8, 2005, what were they really saying? They were crying out that in Karol Wojtyla they saw someone who lived with God and lived with us.
He was a sinner who experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness. He was the prophetic teacher who preached the Word in season and out of season. He looked at us, loved us, touched us, healed us and gave us hope. He taught us not to be afraid. He showed us how to live, how to love, how to forgive and how to die. He taught us how to embrace the cross in the most excruciating moments of life, knowing that the cross was not God’s final answer. He belonged to the entire world, but in a special way, he belonged to Canadians.
More than any other pope, John Paul II made his mark in this country, blessing and speaking to people from coast to coast. He brought the papacy home to us, shared his concerns — and listened to ours — and made us believe he had seen into our souls.
That a person is declared “blessed” or “saint” is not a statement about perfection. Nor is it a 360-degree evaluation of the pontificate or of the Vatican. Beatification and canonization mean that a person lived his or her life with God, relying totally on God’s infinite mercy, going forward with God’s strength and power, believing in the impossible, loving enemies and persecutors, forgiving in the midst of evil and violence, hoping beyond all hope and leaving the world a better place. That person lets those around him or her know that there is a force or spirit animating his or her life that is not of this world, but of the next. Such a person lets us catch a glimpse of the greatness and holiness to which we are all called, and shows us the face of God.
In the life of Karol Wojtyla, the boy from Wadowice, Poland, who would grow up to be a priest and Bishop of Krakow, the Bishop of Rome and a hero for the ages, holiness was contagious. We have all been touched and changed by it. Pope John Paul II was not only “Holy Father” but “a Father who was and is holy.”
Canadians had this taste of holiness firsthand in three visits during John Paul II’s pontificate. The September 1984 cross-Canada tour is still within living memory for many thousands of people — and not just Catholics — who thronged to the stadiums, the roadsides and the made-to-order worship sites to listen to this charismatic holy man. At that time, he was still handsome, hale and strong — a captivating presence on stage or in person. Whether he was blessing the fishing fleet in Flatrock, Nfld., or meeting with Polish families in Toronto or the sick and elderly at the Martyrs’ Shrine near Midland, Ont., he enthralled us. His love-filled gaze took us in and we returned the favour.
Bad weather forced the cancellation of a visit prepared for Fort Simpson, NWT, where John Paul II was to meet with First Nations peoples. The pope felt so deeply sad about missing this visit that he promised to return. And he did, in 1987, when he spoke to aboriginal peoples gathered from across the North. His reverence for the First Nations peoples and compassion for their history of suffering helped change the way Canadians viewed their own troubled relationship with their aboriginal sisters and brothers.
To some, those visits from the 1980s might seem like past history. For Canadians under the age of 30, when you mention this pope’s name, they remember one event: World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto. This momentous occasion drew hundreds of thousands of young Catholics — and some not-so young and not-so-Catholic — to get a glimpse of the pope over a week-long festival of worship, prayer, spiritual formation and camaraderie.
That week, Pope John Paul II told the young of the world, “Do not be afraid” to live out your faith and be the best you can be. The pope went home after an exhausting outdoor Mass with more than 850,000 people at Toronto’s Downsview Park. The young went home with joy in their hearts to live what they had seen and felt during that privileged week.
Three years ago, in 2011, we celebrated the beatification of Pope John Paul II. On April 27 he is being enrolled in the book of Saints of the Catholic Church. May we learn from “Papa Wojtyla” how to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges, embrace the cross of suffering and proclaim the Gospel of Life to the people of our time. May we learn how to live, to suffer and to die unto the Lord.