Celebrating Saint John Paul II

Pope John Paul II appears from St. Peter's Basilica following his election the evening of Oct. 16, 1978.  (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Pope John Paul II appears from St. Peter’s Basilica following his election the evening of Oct. 16, 1978. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Today marks the first feast day of Saint John Paul II, as the newly canonized pope is now a part of the Catholic Church’s universal calendar.

On April 27, I had the profound blessing of being a concelebrant at the Mass where Pope Francis, joined by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, canonized Saint John Paul and Saint John XXIII. That Mass in Saint Peter’s Square was attended by an estimated 800,000 pilgrims from around the world. Pope John, who ushered in a renewal of the Church for modern times by calling the Second Vatican Council, and Pope John Paul, who implemented the Council’s teachings, were pontiffs who have inspired me from the time I was a seminarian, and through my years as a priest, bishop and cardinal.

As the canonization unfolded, I reflected on the personal impact of Saint John Paul II on my life and work. I witnessed his first public Mass as pope 36 years ago today in Rome, when he said, “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ,” encouraging people and nations to be open to his saving words of life.

In 1986, this holy man ordained me as a bishop in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Since then, I have tried in some small way to model my life as a bishop on two aspects in particular of his ministry. Saint John Paul was always teaching the faith and telling the story of Jesus. This he did in his talks, his writings and in the way he lived his life. Secondly, he completely loved the Church and dedicated his life to her mission to proclaim the word of God, celebrate the sacraments and do works of charity.

During his papacy of more than 26 years, Pope John Paul went out to the world, visiting 133 countries. At his funeral in 2005, his beatification in 2011 and then his canonization in 2014, the world came to him. He had an amazing gift of touching people’s hearts. Over the years, the millions who heard him thought he was talking directly to them, the same feeling experienced by those who read his writings. He truly was a missionary, bringing Christ’s love and truth to people’s hearts and to the world.

In this, the Archdiocese of Washington’s 75th anniversary year, we can reflect upon one of the greatest moments in our local Church’s history, when the new Successor of Peter took an apostolic journey to our nation’s capital in October 1979. He celebrated Mass on the National Mall with 175,000 people, and became the first pope to visit the White House. He also celebrated a Mass for priests at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, addressed educators at The Catholic University of America, prayed with ecumenical leaders at Trinity College, and met with religious at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Today the Church of Washington looks to that holy pope with our Saint John Paul II Seminary, where the next generation of priests is inspired by the dynamic witness of the new saint whose name graces their seminary.  Nearby is the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, where I recently joined an interfaith service to pray for peace in the Middle East, following the example of the pope’s famous World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi, Italy in 1986.

Also in the neighborhood is the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which since 1988 has formed new evangelizers in light of his insightful teachings.  Indeed, at John Paul’s canonization, Pope Francis called him “the pope of the family,” and at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family earlier this month, we were guided by the Gospel of the family set forth in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio.

With our hearts open wide to Christ, we continue to walk in the footsteps of this great pilgrim pope, who in his life and now as a saint, guides us on our journey to heaven.