Fr. Karol Wojtyła, with a First Communion class in Niegowić, Poland, 1948.
On our last day in the city, having already made a 70-mile, $200-trek to the airport to retrieve some very stubbornly errant lugage, my friends and I debated how we wanted to spend the day. We thought briefly of trying to make a hurried trip to Assisi, to see the famous medieval town of Umbria and the birthplace of St. Francis. But perhaps out of a desire to capture a few more brief moments in the Caput Mundi, perhaps out of mere exhaustion, we decided merely to bum around the city for a few more hours, heading back especially to the Vatican. I am eternally grateful that we did. Emerging onto the Via Ottaviano from the metro stop of the same name, and making it past the Piazza Risorgimento onto the Via di Porta Angelica (I knew none of these names at the time), we ran smack into a mob of people. It just so happens that on that Sunday, May 18, 2003, we happened upon a Mass being celebrated in St. Peter's Square by Pope John Paul II. We had visited St. Peter's and the Vatican earlier in the week but had not known the Holy Father would be celebrating a public Mass that Sunday, let alone a Mass in which he was canonizing four saints (specifically. St. Virginia Centurione Bracelli, St. Maria de Mattias, St. Ursula Ledóchowska, and St. Józef Sebastian Pelczar).
The occasion was impressive, but I remember being more struck by the fact that I was actually seeing John Paul II. He was the only pope I'd ever known; he defined the papacy for my generation, not just as an office but as a personal ministry. He was, by this time, feeble and wracked by Parkinson's, but even as he struggled to lift his head enough to address the crowd, the power and sanctity of that man was visible to me from afar. We didn't linger at the Mass for long, but I remember feeling very grateful that luck (or, more likely Providence) had given us the fortune to be there for a moment, so that I could see John Paul II in the flesh.
Looking back now, my momentary connection to that great man was more lasting and meaningful for me than I realized at the time. A year or so later, I would begin to question my plans for graduation after college, thinking seriously again about the priesthood. Some two years later, I would watch as the world mourned the passing of that pope who embodied the meaning of suffering love, cheers of "Santo subito" echoing through the crowds. A few years after that, having entered seminary, I would have the privilege of visiting the pope's homeland, and I have visited it now three times, seeing among other things: his hometown of Wadowice, seeing the font where he was baptized in the local church; the image of Our Lady of Calvary at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, to which Karol's father took him after the death of his mother, saying to him, "She is your mother now"; the Divine Mercy Shrine that he consecrated, just steps from the Solvay Soda Works where he worked, and the tomb of St. Faustina Kowalska, whom he canonized in 2000; and the palace of the archbishop of Krakow, where he lived and worked for years, including the chapel where he celebrated his first Mass as a priest, clandestinely during the Nazi occupation. Since his death, I had the great privilege of attending his beatification, and my personal chalice was used for the very first time at a Mass offered at the altar above his tomb in St. Peter's Basilica by Bishop Anthony Taylor, assisted by yours truly as deacon, a few months before I was ordained a priest.
Today, along with Pope John XXIII, in that same square where I first glimpsed him, John Paul II was declared to be among the canon of saints in heaven, who enjoy the beatific vision and see God face to face. I have no doubt that that is true, not only because the Church declares it to be so but because of personal conviction as well. The experts say that John Paul II was seen by more people than any other person in human history: some 500 million or so, due to his more than one hundred pastoral visits around the globe. And yet, what was his message at its heart? Know and love Christ. Jesus was always at the center of John Paul II -- his life, his spirituality, his theology, his public word.
As wonderful and holy as John Paul II was, he pales in comparison to Jesus Christ. All the saints do. Karol Wojtyla and Angelo Roncalli were men; men in need of mercy and forgiveness, men with shortcomings and faults and sins. We celebrate their lives and their holiness, not because they were perfect, but in a sense, because they were imperfect. They were not divine beings or angels or superheroes. They were human beings who opened themselves to the grace of Christ and were transformed by it. In no way does that diminish their greatness; rather, their greatness lies precisely in that.
In the Gospel for this Second Sunday of Easter, this Divine Mercy Sunday, Thomas touches the wounds of the Risen Jesus, putting his finger into the nail marks, and his hand into his side. Thomas touches and believes. But is it not true that, touching, Thomas is also touched? The Risen Lord touches Thomas at the core of his being, healing him of his incredulity, softening his heart of stone. At the essence of sanctity lies this personal encounter between each person and Christ. St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII knew that touch of Jesus -- they experienced his infinite Divine Mercy in a real, redeeming way, and they allowed the life of grace that they received from him to radiate through them, such that we saw not them, but Christ.
My friends, fellow pilgrims on this earth, none of us are perfect, not even the saints. All of us need the Divine Mercy of the Son who desires to give it to us. And yet, as we know from the lives of Karol and Angelo, holiness really is possible. Not just for them, but for you and me as well. Let us give thanks to God for the gift of his saints, who prove for us the reality of the possibility of holiness. And let us open our hearts to the Risen Christ, who desires to touch each of us with his divine hand, to share with us his Divine Mercy, to make us saints as well.