Poland’s favorite son ascends the altar

Robert Strybel, Warsaw Correspondent

Millions of Poles stayed glued to their TV screens on Mercy Sunday (April 27) to witness the long-awaited elevation to sainthood of their favorite son, Karol Wojtyła, better known as Papież Jan Paweł Drugi. And tens of thousands of Poles were among the estimated one million pilgrims who personally attended the joint canonization of John Paul II and his Italian predecessor John XXIII. It was the first time two popes were ever simultaneously proclaimed saints and the first time two pontiffs – the currently reigning Francis and his retired predecessor Benedict XVI – took part in the canonization liturgy.

It was no coincidence that Pope Francis decided to co-canonize those two pillars of Roman Catholicism at a single ceremony. Pope John XXIII had launched the Second Vatican Council to revitalize the Church and open dialogue with other religions, while his Polish successor John Paul II was to make ecumenism a cornerstone of his papacy. It has been said that John XXIII opened the doors of the Church to air it out, while John Paul II walked through those doors and took the message to some 130 different countries world-wide. There were slight differences in style between the kindly, rotund John XXIII and his charismatic Polish successor. But both were religious leaders deeply committed to the service of God and man who never lost their common touch and people-friendly ways despite all the protocol, pomp and celebrity treatment they had to deal with.

During the days preceding the canonization, thousands of enthusiastic Polish pilgrims – including entire families, nuns, priests and seminarians, scouts, university students, soldiers and policemen – streamed into Rome. Most had come by plane, train and car, but some chose motorcycles and bikes and a few even made the more than 800-mile journey on horseback or on foot. White and red flags were everywhere to be seen, and Polish was the most common foreign language heard on the streets of the Eternal City. US and Canadian flags identified many smiling North American Polonians in attendance.

In tightly packed St Peter’s Square, where large banners with portraits of the two about-to-be-canonized pontiffs adorned the façade of the basilica, Pope Francis recited the Latin saint-making formula, “After mature deliberation, numerous requests for divine assistance and in consultation with our Brothers in the Episcopate, we hereby declare and define the sainthood of Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II and enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the entire Church.”

In his homily, the Holy Father described the two pontiffs as “men of courage” who bore witness to God’s mercy. “They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century who experienced that century’s tragic events, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful, faith was more powerful – faith in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history.”

Praising the Second Vatican Council which had helped bring the Church to the people, he said, “John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit to restore and update the Church according to its original shape, the shape with which saints have endowed it over the centuries.” Pope Francis referred to the Polish Pontiff as “the pope of the family” and noted that he was planning a special synod devoted to family affairs.

Attending the ceremony was an official Polish delegation led by President Bronisław Komorowski and accompanied by the country’s remaining two democratically presidents, Lech Wałęsa and Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Also present and were some 40 additional heads of state and prime ministers. President Obama sent a low-level delegation headed by his adviser John Podesta. Many Poles felt Jan Paweł II had already been a saint during his pontificate, a conviction echoed at his funeral in 2005 by Italian young people who called for immediate sainthood chanting “Santo subito.” A similar view was expressed in a rare interview by the Polish Pontiff’s immediate successor, Benedict XVI, who said, “In the years in which I collaborated with him, it was ever clearer to me that John Paul II was a saint. My memory of John Paul II is filled with gratitude. I couldn’t and shouldn’t try to imitate him, but I have tried to carry forward his legacy and his work as best I could.”

It was German-born Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger) who accelerated his Polish predecessor’s beatification in May 2011, a mere six years after his death. By the standards of the Roman Catholic Church, whose mills grind slowly, Karol Wojtyła’s canonization can only be regarded as fast-track sainthood. Co-canonized John XXIII had to wait more than half a century to become a saint. And medieval Poland’s Queen Jadwiga was beatified (in 1979) and canonized (1997) by John Paul II, nearly six centuries after her death.