John Paul II’s beatification resurrects a nearly forgotten personal memory from December 1983. As college juniors studying abroad, a friend and I attended Christmas Day mass at St. Peter’s with the pope presiding. I remember being very excited at the prospect of seeing John Paul in person, but the reality, watching him walk past our pew during the opening and closing processions, was surprising. Physically shorter than I’d thought, he emanated a powerful aura of holiness and kindness which I hadn’t anticipated. This recollection helps me better understand the groundswell of support from many for his beautification.
The politics exposed by the swiftness of his elevation (i.e. Why him and not Oscar Romero or John XXIII?) annoy me a bit, but my attitude toward the Church’s saints has moderated over the years. The official “seal of approval” matters less than it did. However, I continue to enjoy the saints as stories — about particular individuals and their lives as well as historical events that may provide inspiration for the present. From that standpoint if no other, John Paul II’s fascinating life proves most worthy.
In the journal of my 1983 trip to Rome, I also noted with disapproval that we were not permitted to receive communion in our hands at St. Peter’s as we’d been doing for years at home. A liturgical critic even at age 20! But clearly I possessed no historical context about Church practices back then. With the blissful ignorance of youth, I assumed that my experience was normative. Now in middle age I know better, and to recall such innocence is bittersweet.