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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Meeting two saints - Saint Pope John XXIII and Saint Pope John Paul II

This is a story about having the rare opportunity to meet two saints. Both of them were canonized today, in St. Peter's Basilica, at an extraordinary double canonization Mass, con-celebrated by Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.   

Okay, one of those two saints I met posthumously. Yet, he was there, all laid out and fully dressed, found while I was walking around St. Peter's Basilica, like any ordinary tourist. I just happened to find the beautifully dressed remains of Saint Pope John XXIII displayed in full view for anyone who wanted to spend time with him. There were no directions to a shrine announcing where Pope John XXIII was laying in state, but faithful wanderers in the magnificent St. Peter's Basilica could simply find him laying in a crystal glass reliquary. Indeed, my husband Richard and I spent quiet time with the remains of Blessed Pope John XXIII. We meditated within a few feet of his crystal casket, and pondered the man who was once alive. It was more like looking at a painting, rather than witnessing human remains. Was his spirit there with us while we gazed at his remains? Certainly, our human curiosity was evident. Not many people gathered around Pope John XXIII's remains. His mortality was too real, too close to our own inevitability and starkly displayed, reminding us of our imminent deaths. This overt exposition of remains is not practiced in the United States. To say it's an unusual display is an understatement. But, nevertheless, my husband and I spent silent time with the beautiful remains of Saint Pope John XXIII. He really looked good.

Meeting Saint Pope John Paul II was a different experience. He was very much alive when my husband and I saw him, when we attended his celebration of Christmas Midnight Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in the late 1990s. Pope John Paul II was well enough, at that time, to walk down the basilica's center aisle when we saw him. It's a long walk down that center aisle, a lengthy distance, even for a healthy senior citizens.

I was struck by the joyous reception Pope John Paul II received from the thousands of attendees at the Midnight Mass in St. Peter's. At that time, I'd never seen a Pope before, either living or dead. Therefore, it surprised me to experience the enthusiasm with which he was greeted. Thankfully, my Italian mother prepared me for the use of the word "Papa".  She told me the Italian people would address the Pope as "Papa". In fact, that's exactly what happened. At the stroke of Midnight on Christmas morning, the basilica began to fill with the growing chorus of "Papa, Papa!" repeated over and over until the Pope himself nearly sprinted down the center aisle. I believe the year we saw Pope John Paul II celebrate Midnight Mass was the last time he walked into the St. Peter's Basilica without assistance. In subsequent years, he used a mobile cart.  

Seeing a Pope who was alive at the time was just like being in the presence of a religious rock star. There's no other way to adequately explain this experience. Indeed, the charisma exuded from the person who represents the church Jesus Christ founded on earth, was electrifying. His appearance sent joy throughout the basilica, like seeing a rainbow form following a refreshing summer shower.

Being in the presence of Pope John Paul II, gave us a sense of awesomeness. In contrast, witnessing the remains of Pope John XXIII was sobering.

Nevertheless, my husband and I are sincerely humbled to have shared these rare experiences. There's no doubt that both of these holy Pope's are in heaven. They were flawed men, but the totality of their lives displayed an overwhelming devotion to God, prayer and holiness. 

I just wonder, with some trepidation, if my husband and I will have the rare chance to tell both men, who are now saints, how nice it was to meet them, while we were both mortal earthlings.  

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