New Saints

When I was in Germany, I got to see Pope Benedict XVI in person. I got to hear him speak to a large crowd of Freiburg Catholics…and those who came from the surrounding areas. For Freiburg im Breisgau (the city I was living in), it was a huge deal to have  German Pope visiting their city. I went to hear him speak, to listen to him address the people. It was an amazing atmosphere, with all the people there, a teeming throng of people from all over Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and beyond. It was a unique experience that I don’t think I’ll ever get to experience again. I got to be less than 100 yards from a sitting pope and hear him speak without it having been recorded for a television show.

Crowds early on in the evening of Pope Benedict XVI's visit.
Crowds early in the evening of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit (approximately 2 hours before he arrived).

A lot of people in my program for study abroad asked me why I would go to see the pope. After all, I was openly not Christian…and definitely not Catholic. But, as I had to tell them…who would turn down the chance to see and hear a religious leader speak in person? I would just as willingly, given the chance, see the Dalai Llama. I’ve been to a mosque and learned about Islam from an imam as well. For me, I would greatly love to learn from the definitive leaders of a religious group. And that meant, given a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the pope, I was going to go and listen to him speak.

We talked about the different popes in the 20th and 21st Centuries for the Catholic Church in my program. One kid in my program liked John XXIII best, for having convened Vatican II and bringing Catholicism to the masses in a way that was unprecedented (in this kid’s opinion). Quite a few others really did not have favorite popes, or ones that they thought were particularly amazing. A lot of them, for all their studying of history, did not understand the history of the times these popes lived in. Some of the kids in the program liked Benedict XVI best. I was the only one among the group that admitted I was most fond of John Paul II.

Slightly fuzzy photo I took of Pope Benedict XVI.
Slightly fuzzy photo I took of Pope Benedict XVI.

Admittedly, my fondness for JPII stems in large part from his being the Polish pope, the first non-Italian pope that the Church had had in almost 400 years. My family are Polish, so I felt some connection on that front, but also from learning about how he was connected to the Solidarity movement in Poland under the communists, I always thought he was an impressive man. His trips in Eastern Europe were unique in character, and they were something unusual. But historically…I’m also fond of him for what he did to begin to heal long-held wounds and schisms. His apologies for things the Catholic Church had done in the past were of interest to me. I was very interested though, in the history of a Polish pope.

I got pretty close to 2 Polish students in one of my university classes at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität. One of them told me that JPII was highly looked at by many Poles for what he had done. She liked him for his focus on family. But there were also those who liked him for how he stood against communism in his homeland. They were unique reasons as diverse as any I had expected. I also learned from my many German classmates that Benedict XVI was a polarizing figure. They had quite a lot of opinions on him…the Church…and the history of the institution in the modern time. I found that the opinions on the Church in Europe can differ from what we think in the States. There is a different culture to consider (not shocking, I know). But there is also a different cultural memory of the times that informed the politics and times of the popes in question.

My going to see Pope Benedict XVI when he visited the city I was living in was informed by curiosity. I wanted to know what it was like. After all, as a polytheist…there isn’t any such figure or gathering that would get so many people to come together. Pagans don’t unify being any 1 figure like Catholics (nominally) unify behind the Pope, the voice of God on earth. Sure…we have gatherings, but there’s nothing like this. It just is nowhere near the same kind of energy and atmosphere.

There was a lot of energy in the air. Being around so many people…feeling all the excitement in the air of everyone, religious or not, that was present, it was exhilarating. Being able to go to an event like that, to participate in a gathering of so many people and to be part of everything–it’s unlike anything else I’ve been a part of. Sure, I’ve been part of smaller crowds at sports events, but there’s something wholly different about a gathering like this. It’s a different type of atmosphere. There’s a different type of energy and nerves in the air. People are anxious to see the pope…the head of their religion. They want to see the man who represents their God on earth.

Even as a non-Christian, I was not uncomfortable. There was not really any room to be uncomfortable in amongst so many people. The people there were all friendly and kind. Everyone was helpful and willing to assist others if the need arose. We were able to get around and talk without trouble. Even amongst the massive groupings of people…there was no pushing or shoving. People were not pressing in on each other to cause trouble. It was…well, remarkably respectful. For such a large gathering, I did not expect that. As a polytheist among so many Christians, I did not feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. Everyone was wonderfully welcoming.

Granted, that was my experience. One of my Christian classmates, not a Catholic, was highly uncomfortable at the gathering. He felt like the atmosphere was tense and unwelcoming to people who were not Catholic. We clearly felt two very different vibes from the same event. It was not that either one of us was wrong or mistaken. More that our own comfort was felt differently.

I am distinctly uncomfortable with crowds. Even with the huge number of people around me…it was not overwhelming. I think it felt like the focal point of the energy was so directed on the event and the pope visiting that there was very little stray energy left to affect people. Outside the obvious intent to raise energy and atmosphere for prayer and acknowledging the Christian God, it was a very comfortable and low-key event.

For me, I was completely at ease. I felt welcomed and a part of the experience. No one cared why an individual was present. It was more important to share in the importance of the moment. The fact that the pope had come to our city, to speak to the local people. That meant more to the individuals present than faith of those at the event. So long as all were respectful, there were no problems. Which I think, was an attitude that was not familiar to most of the American classmates I had.

So today’s canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II is interesting for me. It reminds me of my time in Europe. It reminds me of those old conversations.

As quite a few people have stated: it was unprecedented for Pope Francis to canonize two former popes at one time. And there’s been a lot made of the “liberal” John XXIII and the “conservative” John Paul II being canonized together. Then there was Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in attendance. It certainly was a sight to behold in the Vatican, I’m sure. 4 Popes involved in 1 event is something that has not been done before, and may never be done again. I think it’s been noted that never have 2 living popes (or a pope and former pope, more technically) ever done Mass together before.

Still, the rapid track for JPII to be canonized was unheard of. It’s only been 9 years since he died. No one has been canonized that quickly in modern times. John XXIII was a phenomenal pope as well, his ability to bring the Church into the modern era in some respects was impressive. Making it so that the services were held in the local language, opening up the faith ever more to those lay Catholics that make up the most of the body of the Church…that was radical. John Paul II was the second-longest serving pope. His papacy defines the last quarter of the 20th Century. He definitely helped to shape the world we live in, with his travel and his stances during the Cold War.

I suppose it might be strange for a professed polytheist and a person that was never raised in a Christian home to take such heart from this. But…I think that this was wonderful. John XXIII did a lot to open the Church to the layperson. John Paul II was the pope that (to many people’s imaginations) helped topple communism. While perhaps many may not fully care about 2 more being added to the ranks of the Catholic Church’s saints, to me, this is something nice. Both men were extraordinary in life, and the Church chose to recognize their holiness with sainthood.

Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II
Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II

To me…as a person whose family comes from Poland, John Paul II means a lot. His life was something unimaginable. And then he became the first non-Italian pope in 400 hundred years. He did a lot for the world, and for the Church. His canonization alongside John XXIII is a point of honor. I feel that it is an honor to say that my family came from the same country that produced a man worthy enough to be honored as many times over as John Paul II has been.

And Pope Francis presided over an unprecedented ceremony that perhaps shows a new path within the Church. He has chosen to walk his path, to follow what his God tells him to do. He convinced Benedict XVI to come out of retirement to join the Vatican for the canonization ceremony today. Perhaps he can bring together the different opinions within the Church. Having this ceremony does a lot to bring to a close 2 different canonization movements for 2 very popular popes from the last century.

Other Links

  • Pope Francis makes history with dual canonization – here.
  • Sainthood for John Paul II, John XXIII – here.



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