Have you had the opportunity to be in the presence of a Saint?
I mean an official acclaimed-by-the-Church, 'capital-S' Saint?
Can even a small experience, an experience shared with thousands of others
have the ability to change your life in a positive and deeply meaningful way?
I think we have all met someone, or have been in the presence of someone, who has remained embedded in our memory. This person might have inspired you or lent you hope, reached out to you, or lifted you up. This person might have taught you, or forgave you. This person may have had patience with you or protected you, or noticed you in a time of need. This person may have prayed with you and for you. This person loved you.
As I say this, people emerges from your memory right?
The reality that we remember people like this is why we are marking this Feast Day today. On this day we honour Pope Saint John Paul II, and give thanks to God for giving this man to the Church and to us. We remember him because we acknowledge his sanctity, his saintliness, and the impact that he has had in our lives (even fleetingly). We honour him because of how obviously he has called us towards sanctity ourselves.
Pope Saint John Paul II was many things during his life on earth. If I were to choose just one adjective to describe this great man, it would be to call him a loving-encourager. He stood up for 27 years, after 32 years of priesthood, as our Supreme Pontiff, the Shepherd of the Church, the Successor to St. Peter, and the Vicar of Christ – with a strong voice and magnanimous heart that encouraged us through his teaching and prayer. He gave us so much, and all along continued to call us towards our own vocations of holiness.
For the past several weeks, I have had an image I found on the internet as my computer's desktop image. It is Saint John Paul II alongside his own quote:
"Real love is demanding.
I would fail in my mission if I did not tell you so.
Love demands a personal commitment to the will of God."
This wisdom, and realistic acknowledgement of the challenges of everyday life is a fruitful reminder for me in my own vocation. This call to love comes from a homily given in 1979, one year after his election as pope.
In 2002, on Thursday July 25th at 4pm, I had a personal encounter with this Saint during World Youth Day in Toronto. Immediately, I wrote this reaction in my sketchbook:
"THE POPE IS HERE!! JOHN PAUL II IS HERE! HIS HOLINESS IS HERE! He drove past, and I was 6 feet away! 6 FEET! Thank you God for this blessing and opportunity."
I then continued with a few of my own notes from his opening address to the giant crowds:
"Jesus did not proclaim the beatitudes, he lived them! The beatitudes are a picture of those who have accepted the Kingdom of God. To those, Jesus speaks, calling them Blessed. If you look at Jesus, you see what it means to be meek & merciful, to be a peacemaker. Let us listen to this Voice...let us listen to the voice of Jesus. The church today looks to you with confidence to BE the Beatitudes. Only Jesus is the TRUE MASTER! He knows what is in each person! Today He calls you to be the salt and light of the world. Young people, answer the Lord with strong and generous hearts. He is counting on you – never forget! He needs you and your enthusiasm to be the bringers of Truth in the New Millennium."
This was arguably one of the strongest and most consistent messages of St. John Paul II – calling out to young people – teaching us, praying for us, pointing us to Jesus Christ and towards holiness, courage, and action.
As I sat listening to him and writing his words, I knew that he was making a papal address to thousands of people gathered around him, and to the whole world – but I also felt like he was speaking just to me. It was a profound experience, and one that made my eyes leak.
A Saint is not made in heaven.
A Saint is truly made on earth, as a person living his or her life in the place and time God has chosen them.
We can pray that we meet in our lives at least one person who we can call a 'living saint'.
These living saints are far more numerous than the number of officially canonized Saints recognised by the Church. All of our cherished 'capital-S' Saints were already recognised, long before their arrival in heaven or their canonization, by the people who knew them during their earthly life as holy and saintly people – as living saints.
A saint is someone who knows God's presence, and looks to Jesus Christ for life and hope. A saint follows in a humble way the path of God's will for them. A saint is one who is recognised by others as holy—in this life—through their choices, words, actions, and example.
A saint lives his or her life ready to respond to God's call. They are ready to serve, give, suffer, and pray, according to the circumstances they find themselves in, and the talents they have been given. A saint inspires others to follow their gaze, and to walk in the same direction as they are going – and that direction is towards Jesus Christ.
Using this description, it becomes clear that I was in the presence of a saint that day in 2002: a holy and blessed man who was given a huge responsibility in the world, and has lived his life in a way that has directed the gaze of hundreds of thousands towards Christ.
In some of his first words of substance as our pope, Saint John Paul II began his inaugural homily with these words
first of all:
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." He continued,
"our time calls us, urges us, obliges us to gaze on the Lord and immerse ourselves in humble and devout meditation on the mystery of the supreme power of Christ himself. Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and, with Christ's power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ."
In his turn, Saint John Paul II was given the same role Jesus gave Saint Peter – to be Shepherd of Christ's Flock. He also followed carefully the advice Saint Paul gave to the young Saint Timothy:
"Proclaim the message; be persistent in any case; teach, convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience; always be sober and alert, endure suffering; do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully."
(2 Tim 4:1-5)
St. John Paul II lived this out, right to his last day on earth, all the while urging us to do the same. His last appearance in public was one of love and suffering – he did not speak a word. He just gave the world his blessing by tracing the Cross of Christ over us.
His last words were in Polish, on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday 2005: "Let me go to the house of the Father."
Let us take a moment today to thank God heartily for the ways that this holy witness has inspired us, has given us example, and has urged us to follow his gaze to Jesus Christ.
Homily originally given in Calgary, Alberta on October 22, 2015 - The Feast of Pope Saint John Paul II