For many Northeastern Pennsylvania Catholics, Friday was like 1978 all over again.
News that Pope Francis has cleared the way for Pope John Paul II’s path to sainthood reverberated with members of the faith — particularly those of Polish ancestry — in an echo of the excitement when word broke nearly 35 years ago that a cardinal from Poland had been elevated to the papacy.
“Pope Francis’ decree clearing the way for the canonization of blessed John Paul II is a blessing for the universal church and for many faithful Catholics from throughout the Diocese of Scranton, in particular those who trace their roots to Poland,” said The Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, bishop of Scranton, who is of Polish descent.
“As the first Polish-born pope, Pope John Paul II served with profound humility as a spiritual leader whose faith, respect for the dignity of all human life, concern for the poor and marginalized, and passion for justice and peace continues to speak important messages to our world today,” the bishop added.
Born Karol Józef Wojtyła in Wadowice, Poland, the man now known to many Catholics as John Paul the Great was the second-longest serving pope, reigning from election in October 1978 until his death in April 2005.
“It was quite a thrill, and a real surprise,” Nanticoke resident Bernard Kolodziej said of John Paul’s election.
Kolodziej is president of The Fraternal Societies of Northeast Pennsylvania and Polish Union USA in Wilkes-Barre. He was then director of the Wyoming Valley Children’s Association, visiting the former Bishop O’Reilly High School in connection with a charity event.
“The principal came out onto the steps and said, ‘Bernie, we have a Polish pope,’” Kolodziej said. “It was exciting.”
Charles S. Kraszewski, an author and a resident of Dallas, said he “was not surprised in the least” that Pope Francis, and Pope Benedict XVI before him, expedited the canonization process.
“The sanctity of this person was obvious to the entire world,” Kraszewski said.
“Although the church has rigorous standards for the modern canonization process, I believe that in the early church, saints could be declared by acclamation,” he said. “We witnessed something of this after the death of Blessed John Paul, when crowds gathered and chanted ‘Santo subito!’ This had nothing to do with his popularity. Canonization is about witnessing to the special graces of the person in question.”
Often, Kraszewski said, the witnesses testify to miracles that have occurred through the saint’s intervention — as in this case, of the medically inexplicable curing of a woman in Costa Rica, whose family prayed to the late pope.
“But men and women also ‘qualify’ for sainthood through a holy life and visible saintly virtues,” he said. “In this day and age of – perhaps too much – news coverage, we all witnessed this very public pope throughout his long pontificate, and what we saw, day in and day out, was a person with heroic virtues that qualified him for sainthood.”
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the late stages of Karol Wojtyła’s life, Kraszewski said. Nearly debilitated by the disease ravaging his once athletic body, Pope John Paul II refused to step down from the throne of Peter, carrying out his duties even when his body was so decrepit that he could no longer walk with ease.
“This made many people in our disposable society uncomfortable, who do not like to look upon the suffering and disease of debilitated persons,” Kraszewski said. “Yet in his determination not to shy from the ubiquitous cameras, John Paul II was giving one of his most eloquent sermons: human beings never lose their human dignity.”
Studied life John Paul II
Kraszewski’s son, Gracjan, is in graduate school at Mississippi State University. He has studied the life of Pope John Paul II and said the late pontiff’s imminent canonization is of great significance.
“As pope, his theological depth and personal piety re-invigorated Catholics young and old, focusing attention on the Mass, the Sacraments and devotion to the Blessed Mother,” Gracjan Kraszewski said. “As a Pole, he catalyzed the 1980s Solidarity movement that facilitated the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the dissolution of the USSR. For Christians writ large, he, perhaps better than any Christian leader, strove to live Christ’s words that ‘all should be one’ in his tireless ecumenical work across denominational lines.”
Kraszewski said Pope John Paul II’s audience with Muslim youths in Casablanca, or the organization of interfaith prayer services, showed that while he was dogmatically rooted in Rome, he never missed opportunities to find common ground with people of good will.
“For myself, personally, as a Catholic and Pole, this is a monumental day,” he said. “The man was, and is, truly a national hero — a role model in faith and a role model overall. I couldn’t be happier and more proud, nor do I think there is anyone more deserving of this than him.”