A Saint for Canada: John Paul II
Interview on Zenit International News Service
There are many lenses through which to view Pope St. John Paul II. A book released this year by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica proposes the Polish Pontiff as a “saint for Canada” (Novalis 2014).
ZENIT spoke with Fr. Rosica about his insights into the Pope and saint who loved Canada and was loved by Canadians.
ZENIT: Why is a Polish Pope a “saint for Canada?”
Father Rosica: Pope John Paul II was the first Pope to set foot on Canadian soil. It was the longest pastoral visit ever made by any Pope in a single country back in 1984 — 12 days. With his arrival on September 9 in the Quebec City suburb of Ste. Foy, the Holy Father began a 15,000-kilometre marathon that took him from the Atlantic to the Pacific. When the visit ended on September 20 that year, he had visited Quebec City, Trois-Rivières, Montreal, St. John’s, Moncton, Halifax, Toronto, Midland (Ontario), Winnipeg/St. Boniface, Edmonton, Yellowknife, Vancouver and Ottawa/Hull. In some of those cities, he visited major Canadian pilgrimage sites: Sainte-Anne de Beaupré, Cap-de-la-Madeleine, St. Joseph’s Oratory and the Canadian Martyrs Shrine in Midland. Millions of Canadians turned out to greet the pontiff, pray with him and to celebrate, many of them deeply moved by his words and presence. His visit left a deep and lasting impression on our country.
During that historic 1984 visit, John Paul II endeared himself to Canadians and from the very beginning, and Canadians loved him. That affection reached its peak in 2002 when he returned to us as an elderly, infirm man and presided over World Youth Day 2002, his last great international youth event. He made us all feel young again. Though I did not choose the title for the book “A Saint for Canada,” more than any pope, John Paul II was ours in a very special way!
ZENIT: Tell us about Pope John Paul II’s relationship with the First Nations (Native Communities) in Canada?
Father Rosica: In 1984, bad weather had forced the cancellation of a visit prepared for Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories, where John Paul II was to meet with First Nations peoples. The pope felt so deeply sad about missing this visit with them that he promised to return. And he did, in 1987, when he spoke to Aboriginal peoples gathered from across the North. His reverence for the First Nations peoples and compassion for their history of suffering helped change the way Canadians viewed their own troubled relationship with their Aboriginal sisters and brothers.
ZENIT: What was it like to know a saint personally?
Father Rosica: I think I visited with Pope John Paul II five times before I was appointed to World Youth Day 2002, at least 12 times in preparation for World Youth Day 2002 and six times following World Youth Day and prior to his death in 2005. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, gave a great emphasis to holiness, and the call to holiness extended to everyone. And it’s very important that we see this call embodied in a person’s life. John Paul II was a man who was in constant dialogue with God. He was the pope of holiness. I knew that there was something extraordinary about this man. It was pretty clear that he lived with God, and he lived with us. Whenever I spoke with him, I knew that I was talking with someone who was a friend of God. Each time I was with him, and for that matter each time I am with a holy person, I go away from that encounter with a deep desire to pray, to spend more time with God, and to be a better person. I think one of the great qualities of holy persons is that they give us a “holy jealousy” – making the rest of us thirst for God, desire to be holy and to be a better people.
ZENIT: You mention a theory for why young people had such a great love for John Paul II. What is that?
Father Rosica: John Paul II enjoyed an incredible popularity with young Catholics. At the World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, he called the young people of the world his “joy and his crown”. In July 2002 in Toronto, he showed us the same. Young people today are experiencing an extreme crisis of fatherhood. I am convinced that they flocked to him because in many cases he was the father they never had and the grandfather who had been so painfully absent in their lives. John Paul II was a rock, a moral compass, and a very demanding friend. He made all of us discover our youthfulness, generosity and joy as he invited us to become salt and light in a world, a society and a culture that is so cynical, so tasteless and so often devoid of the flavor and joy of the Gospel and the light and hope of Christ.
From the beginning of his Pontificate, he insisted on meeting young people whenever he visited Roman parishes or foreign countries. Building on a tradition begun by his predecessor, Paul VI in the twilight years of his reign (1976), John Paul II invited hoards of young people to Rome in 1984 for the Jubilee Year of the Redemption, and in March 1985 for the International Year of Youth, when, on Palm Sunday, he established World Youth Days as a permanent event. “No one invented the World Youth Days. It was the young people themselves who created them”, John Paul II wrote in his 1994 book, Crossing The Threshold of Hope. In actual fact, he first sought them out; they then discovered him. Most of the World Youth Days, including ours in Canada, have been something of a surprise for priests and bishops, in that they surpassed all our expectations!
John Paul II issued to young people a clarion call to commitment. To his young friends he said: “Many and enticing are the voices that call out to you from all sides: many of these voices speak to you of a joy that can be had with money, success, and power. Mostly they propose a joy that comes with the superficial and fleeting pleasure of the senses.” The alternative call was Jesus’ siren song. “He calls you to be the salt and light of the world, to live in justice, to become instruments of love and peace.” The choice was stark, self-denying, life-defining, irrevocable. It was between, “good and evil, between light and darkness, between life and death.” There were no shortcuts or compromises for John Paul II, only clarity. And that is what the young are seeking today, not quick answers but Gospel clarity.
How many people are not afraid anymore because they saw a Pope who was not afraid. How many young seminarians and religious have spoken their “yes” because of him! How many young couples have made permanent commitments in marriage because of his profound theology of the body! How many ordinary people have done extraordinary things because of his influence, his teaching and his gestures!
ZENIT: John Paul II wrote and preached volumes. Even in focusing on a specific element, such as his ministry to Canada, how does one begin to digest or sort through such a huge body of teaching and a powerful message?
Father Rosica: Pope John Paul II tirelessly travelled the world, bringing to women and men of every race, nation and culture, a message of hope; that human dignity is rooted in the fact that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God. The Holy Father’s courageous and steadfast witness to the power of the Risen Lord has been the hallmark of his Pontificate– in which he has opened wide the doors of many human hearts and of many nations to Christ. By his witness and preaching of the Catholic faith, the Holy Father has had a great part in changing the course of history. The body of teaching that he left us is staggering- immense, accessible, rich and transforming. It is now up to us to unpack the gift of his teaching and appropriate it in our lives.
The challenge to the Church in Canada, and for that matter to the Church in each country, is to deepen its relationship with the living communion of faith of the whole Church. Canada has much from its experience to offer to the universal Church – about tolerance, peace, social justice, a significant, rich heritage of Saints and Blesseds who brought us the faith. That is the mission of the Church in Canada as well. We cannot forget the deeply Christian roots and heritage of this country. This is not only a religious question but also of an anthropological order since human identity cannot be separated or divorced from its Christian identity. In an increasingly secularised world the place and role of religion in our cultural identity must be re-evaluated and re-vitalised. There can be no future without a past. Our present has been formed by a Christian heritage handed down to us; will future generations to come have a similar Christian heritage to hand on?
ZENIT: John Paul II is now set before us as a saint, as someone to emulate. Yet, how can one imitate someone as other-worldy as John Paul II?
Father Rosica: That a person is declared “Blessed” or “Saint” is not a statement about perfection. It does not mean that the person was without imperfection, blindness, deafness or sin. Nor is it a 360-degree evaluation of the Pontificate or of the Vatican. Beatification and Canonization mean that a person lived his or her life with God, relying totally on God’s infinite mercy, going forward with God’s strength and power, believing in the impossible, loving one’s enemies and persecutors, forgiving in the midst of evil and violence, hoping beyond all hope, and leaving the world a better place. That person lets those around him know that there is a force or spirit animating his or her life that is not of this world, but the next. Such a person lets us catch a glimpse of the greatness and holiness to which we are all called, and shows us the face of God as we journey on our pilgrim way on earth. Canonization and holiness is not some kind of perfection that erases all kinds of faults and errors. The first requirement to be a saint in the Church is you have to be a sinner – but a sinner who recognizes the power of God’s mercy and forgiveness, and lives in that experience.
One of the most profound lessons John Paul II taught us in the twilight of his pontificate was that everyone must suffer, even the Vicar of Christ. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, he let the whole world see what he went through. The passing of John Paul II did not take place in private, but before television cameras and the whole world. In the final act of his life, the athlete was immobilized; the distinctive, booming voice silenced; the hand that produced voluminous encyclicals no longer able to write. John Paul II’s final homily was an icon of his Galilean Master’s final words to Simon Peter:
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” … After this [Jesus] said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18-19)
In the life of Karol Wojytyla, the boy from Wadowice who would grow up to be a priest and Bishop of Krakow, the Bishop of Rome, and a hero for the ages, holiness was contagious. We have all been touched and changed by it. Pope John Paul II was not only “Holy Father” but “a Father who was and is Holy.” At his funeral mass on April 8, 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told the world that the Holy Father was watching us and blessing us ‘from the window of the Father’s House.”
Let us learn from this great, contemporary saint how to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges, embrace the Cross of suffering and proclaim the Gospel of Life to the people of our time. May we learn how to live, to suffer and die unto the Lord. Let us pray to have a small portion of the fidelity of Peter’s witness and the boldness of Paul’s proclamation that were so mightily present in Karol Wojtyla – St. John Paul II. May he intercede for us and for all those who suffer in body and spirit, and give us the desire to become holy and to be saints.
In his homily at the Beatification of Pope John Paul II on May 1, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI summarized beautifully Karol Wojtyla’s life of holiness:
“… When Karol Wojtyla ascended to the throne of Peter, he brought with him a deep understanding of the difference between Marxism and Christianity, based on their respective visions of man. This was his message: man is the way of the Church, and Christ is the way of man. With this message, which is the great legacy of the Second Vatican Council and of its ‘helmsman’, the Servant of God Pope Paul VI, John Paul II led the People of God across the threshold of the Third Millennium, which thanks to Christ he was able to call ‘the threshold of hope’.
Throughout the long journey of preparation for the great Jubilee he directed Christianity once again to the future, the future of God, which transcends history while nonetheless directly affecting it. He rightly reclaimed for Christianity that impulse of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of progress. He restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope, to be lived in history in an “Advent” spirit, in a personal and communitarian existence directed to Christ, the fullness of humanity and the fulfillment of all our longings for justice and peace. …
“Blessed are you, beloved Pope John Paul II, because you believed! Continue, we implore you, to sustain from heaven the faith of God’s people. You often blessed us in this Square from the Apostolic Palace: Bless us, Holy Father! Amen.”
And on April 27 of this year, Pope Francis said of John Paul II:
“They (Wojtyla and Roncalli – John XXIII) were priests, bishops and popes of the twentieth century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, 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; the mercy of God, shown by those five wounds, was more powerful; and more powerful too was the closeness of Mary our Mother.
…In his own service to the People of God, John Paul II was the pope of the family. He himself once said that he wanted to be remembered as the pope of the family. I am particularly happy to point this out as we are in the process of journeying with families towards the Synod on the family. It is surely a journey which, from his place in heaven, he guides and sustains.”
ZENIT: From your continued work with the Holy See Press Office, as well as your work at Salt and Light, you have a unique perspective on the global response to (or interaction with) the Successor of Peter. As two Popes were just canonized, another is to be canonized, and as a Pope Emeritus and a reigning Pope live side-by-side in the Vatican, what overall reflections do you have about God’s ways in ruling his Church through the Bishops of Rome?
Father Rosica: It has been a tremendous, most unexpected privilege and a blessing to work closely with the Vatican during these momentous weeks, and years, especially over the past years of the momentous papal transition. What a lesson this has been in seeing the ministry of the Bishop of Rome up close! Having led a World Youth Day and served at two Synods of Bishops- in 2008 on the “Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” and in 2012 on “The New Evangelization”, I thought that I had reached the summit of any great projects I could serve in the Church! I was wrong! When Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, Director of the Holy See Press Offices called me the day after Benedict’s resignation and asked me to come immediately to Rome, a new adventure began that continues to this day. For me, personally, Fr. Lombardi represents the religious communicator par excellence: intelligence, decency, kindness, patience, goodness and calm! I have learned much from him and admire him greatly.
People constantly ask me where I did my media training and film studies. I smile and tell them that I don’t even watch TV and I see few movies. I studied Scripture at the University of Toronto, at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, the Ecole Biblique et Arcéhologique Française de Jérusalem, and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I learned about ancient texts, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic verbs, and things of the past. I never studied filmmaking, media, public relations, and all the other hi-tech things that are now part of my new world.
But I also tell them that I had the privilege of having a master and mentor who knew the power of words and images, and who taught me everything I know about television, media, and Evangelization. It was a character study of nearly 27 years… a master class that I never sought out and certainly never deserved. That mentor is now a saint: Karol Wojtyla – John Paul II.
It is hardly any surprise then, in this world of faith and in the culture of the Church, that one of the first fruits of World Youth Day 2002, should be the establishment of a national, Catholic television network, truly born on the wings of World Youth Day 2002 – the project that was the driving force of my mentor’s life. This little book is merely a way of saying thanks to him.
To order your copy of “John Paul II: A Saint for Canada” visit:
Fr. Rosica may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, was National Director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 in Canada. He is founder and CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network since 2003. Appointed by Pope Benedict as Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in 2009, he served as English language Media Attaché at the Synods of Bishops of 2008 and 2012. He has been English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office since the Papal transition of 2013.
A Saint for Canada: John Paul II
Fr. Rosica Speaks About Knowing a Saint Personally and Why Youth Loved John Paul So Much
Part 1 published June 24, 2014
Father Rosica Speaks About Living This Unique Time of the Papacy From the View of the Vatican Press Office
Part 2 published June 25, 2014