The Saint We Knew
As reflections go, it's safe to say that – comprising enough paper to stretch to the Moon – the sweeping collection of Karol Wojtyla's Magisterium over 27 years on Peter's chair still remains to be fully absorbed and integrated. In the meantime, even now, we're left with moments... and on this end, one in particular takes the cake.
Looking across the second-longest run the papacy's ever known, 1995 was the transitional point into its final act. The fall of the Iron Curtain behind him, John Paul shifted his focus to the internals, immersing the church in preparation for the Great Jubilee of 2000 and tightening the bolts on teachings that roiled his liberal flank. All the while, the acclaim of the wider world only grew louder – having started the calendar as TIME's newly-minted Person of the Year, weeks later he was met by a crowd of 5 million in Manila (a record that'd only be matched for his funeral) as, in the West, his first book and even a CD of him reciting the Rosary both ran high on the international best-seller lists.
Still, that was just one side of the story. On the other, amid the Pope's 75th birthday that May, these were likewise the days when the famously vigorous skier with a showman's command of the stage – a figure memorably likened in his prime to "Tarzan" by one of his female confidantes – had come to find the trappings of an age which long eluded him begin to creep up in the sight of the world.
At this point, the tremor of Parkinson's hadn't yet shown itself. Still, over the two years prior, John Paul had undergone two major surgeries, first to remove an orange-sized tumor, then to reconstruct his hip after a bathroom fall. Between the toll of the operations, the disease soon to emerge and the wear and tear of 17 years crossing the globe, Papa Wojtyla would never recover his earlier gait, and the global media discreetly began to react by snapping up the rights to every possible rooftop within sight of the Vatican with an eye to a Conclave.
Of course, it'd be another decade before the moment came to pass, leading his longtime secretary to gleefully remark that the Polish Pope outlived no shortage of the pundits who jockeyed to handicap his succession. In any case, the scene of those days nineteen years ago – after his geopolitical triumphs, yet before his physical decline and the ecclesial tsunami of sex-abuse and its cover-up – in retrospect represents the time when John Paul's ministry gave way to the legend of the colossus that'd carry him through the weakening of his final years before culminating in the most massive and affectionate farewell mankind has ever known.
The convergence of events laid out above provides the backdrop to the clip below – St Francis' Day 1995, as the now-Saint slowly made his way into Newark's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart... but not before spontaneously declaring the place a minor basilica while standing in the Narthex:
While we're at it, a piece of John Paul's homily on the occasion feels a fitting message for his feast (emphases original)....
This magnificent building stands in the heart of Newark as a powerful reminder of God’s steadfast love for his People and as a sign of faith in Christ, our "hope of glory" (Col. 1: 27). The Cathedral made of stone is the symbol of the living Church, "God’s household" (1Tim. 3: 15), which is open to everyone without exception, to men and women "of every race and tongue, of every people and nation" (Rev. 5: 9). You – the People of God in Newark and throughout New Jersey – are the "living stones" (1Pt. 2: 5) which make up the Body of Christ in the midst of your City and State. Wherever you are – in your families, neighborhoods, places of work or recreation – you are called to build up the Church in faith, hope and love....as tributes go, meanwhile, even for the passage of time, the first one remains the ultimate.
The Church is alive in you! God, who is the Master Builder of his holy Temple – has poured his love into your hearts through the Holy Spirit! (Cf. Rom. 5: 5) You have received the gift of new life. You have been charged with bringing the Good News "to all creation" (Mk. 16: 5).
For us, it remains unforgettable how, on that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace to give his blessing 'urbi et orbi' for the last time.-30-
Today, we can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing at the window of the Father’s house – that he sees us and that he blesses us.
Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.