Rome--Undaunted by forecasts of foul weather, the mammoth crowd of all nations filled St. Peter’s Square all the way down to the street above the Tiber on May 1, for the beatification of Pope John Paul II. They came prepared for a heavy downpour, but not a drop of rain fell as Pope Benedict XVI beatified his immediate predecessor, who died on April 2, 2005 after a long pontificate of nearly 27 years.
Many saw it as yet another sign from the new blessed who, as the 263rd successor to Peter, had tried to spread so much faith, hope and love to billions of people. Most of the pilgrims had come from Poland, where the new blessed was born as Karol Josef Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, and had served the Church until he became pope on October 16, 1978. But each of the 104 countries he had visited as pope was assuredly represented in the Square.
From the pope’s death to his beatification, it was by far the fastest such process in modern history. It took but six years and 27 days, surpassing by 17 days that of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta who died on September 9, 1997 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II himself on October 19, 2003. But counted from the start of the process (1999) to the beatification itself, Mother Teresa holds the fastest record of only four years.
Pope John Paul II had helped to make that possible by waiving (in 1999) the usual five-year waiting period after the holy person’s death before the process could begin. Pope Benedict XVI did the same thing for his predecessor by waiving the five-year waiting period, 26 days after his death. Then Camillio Cardinal Ruini, vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, formally opened the process on June 28, 2005.
The speed of the process seemed to correspond to the strong public clamor of “santo subito” (sainthood immediately) heard during the wake and funeral mass at St. Peter’s Square in 2005. But it would not have been possible if John Paul II had not lived the Christian virtues in a heroic way, and if at least one miracle, in this case the inexplicable cure of the French nun Marie Simon-Pierre Normand of Parkinson’s disease, had not been attributed to his intercession. In any case, so many people had long regarded him as a saint even before his death.
Throughout the celebration, the crowd was asked to avoid applause and flag-waving and observe prayerful silence. But people literally choked with emotion and broke into tears as the Holy Father pronounced the words of beatification and the Blessed’s giant portrait was unveiled above him.
At least 16 heads of state and 87 official delegations were reported to have attended. Even Zimbabwe’s highly controversial President Robert Mugabe came, just as he did in 2005 when he, like then Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and so many others, attended John Paul II’s funeral. But this time there was no high-level state representation from the Philippines, which the late Pontiff had visited twice, in 1981 and in 1995.
Philippine church participation was led by Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales and Cebu’s Archbishop Emeritus Ricardo Cardinal Vidal who both concelebrated the Mass with Pope Benedict XVI. They were joined by Archbishop Emeritus of Zamboanga Carmelo Morelos, Archbishop of San Fernando, Pampanga Paciano Aniceto, Archbishop Fernando Capalla of Davao, Archbishop Ramon Arguelles of Lipa, Batangas, Bishop Emeritus of Daet Benjamin Almoneda, Bishop Manolo de los Santos of Virac, and Bishop Antonio Tobias of Novaliches, and numerous priests.
At a press conference organized by the Pontificio Collegio Filippino (PCF) rector Father Gregory Gaston on May 2, Cardinal Rosales spoke of the impact of the beatification on the Philippines. Together with Bishop Almoneda, and Father Vicente Cajilig, O.P., a consultant of the Federation of Asian Bishop’s Conference, I was asked to join, and contribute my layman’s perspective on the beatification.
I have the most beautiful personal memories of that great Pope. With my wife, I had the privilege of meeting him at least ten times, and kneeling for over an hour near his catafalque inside St. Peter’s before his funeral. But what moves me most is his life of holiness as Servant of the servants of God, the work he did and the suffering he bore to prepare the Church for the third millennium.
Through his 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, 45 apostolic letters, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the reforms of the Eastern and Western Codes of Canon Law and of the Roman Curia, his personal writings, his pastoral visits to 104 countries and to 146 places in Italy, not to mention the 317 of his 333 parishes in Rome, his bold thrust at dialogue with the other religions, and above all his personal witness, he gave us, in Pope Benedict XVI’s words, the strength to believe in---and to be one with---Christ.
In Tertio Millennio Aveniente (1994) and Novo Millennio Ineunte, he anticipated to us the manifold challenges and opportunities of the new millennium.
As the pope for human life, marriage, the family, women and the youth, he labored tirelessly to promote the culture of life, breaking new ground in Evangelium Vitae, Veritatis Splendor, Familaris Consortio, Magnum Matrimonii Sacramentum, Mulieris Dignitatem, his World Meetings of Families and World Youth Days.
He elaborated on the real meaning and value of labor in Laborem Exercens in a way no progressive mind had done before him or since. He enlarged our vision of our social concerns in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Centesimus Annus and related utterances and writings.
He deepened the laity’s understanding of their role in the Church in Christifideles Laici; and that of the clergy and the religious in Fidei Depositum, Pastor Bonus, Pastores Gregis, Vita Consecrata, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Misericordia Dei, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
He foresaw the moral relativism that would engulf our materialistic global society, and set the standards by which faith and reason should deal with each other in Fides et Ratio, a theme which Pope Benedict XVI has since carried forward with his eloquent call for the mutual purification of faith and reason.
Many Filipinos recall with profound gratitude that Blessed John Paul II created the first Filipino saint, St. Lorenzo Ruiz, in 1987, and beatified Pedro Calungsod in 2000. He also created two outstanding Filipino cardinals---Ricardo J. Cardinal Vidal, now Archbishop Emeritus of Cebu, and Jose T. Cardinal Sanchez, former Secretary of the Congregation of the Evangelization of Peoples, and now Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy----the first and so far only Filipino cleric ever to head a dicastery of the Roman Curia. At 91, the cardinal has given up his Vatican residence and offered to do whatever he can to help strengthen the pastoral life of the Church in the Philippines.
My own undimmed memory of the new blessed is that of the immaculately garbed pilgrim pope kissing the ground at the Manila international airport and greeting the Filipinos in his rich booming voice, “I come in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose servant I am.” And then proclaiming to the biggest human assembly ever gathered on earth, up to that time, that “you are the light of Asia and the world!”
It would seem to me an utter lack of gratitude if we fail to make that light burn as brightly as it should, in the face of the savage threat to extinguish it from the reproductive forces of darkness.