There are many lenses through which to view Pope St. John Paul II. A book released this year by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica proposes the Polish Pontiff as a “saint for Canada” (Novalis 2014).
ZENIT spoke with Fr. Rosica about his insights into the Pope and saint who loved Canada and was loved by Canadians.
Part 2 of this interview will be published Wednesday.
ZENIT: Why is a Polish Pope a “saint for Canada?”
Father Rosica: Pope John Paul II wasthe first Pope to set foot on Canadian soil. It was the longest pastoral visit ever made by any Pope in a single country back in 1984 — 12 days. With his arrival on September 9 in the Quebec City suburb of Ste. Foy, the Holy Father began a 15,000-kilometre marathon that took him from the Atlantic to the Pacific. When the visit ended on September 20 that year, he had visited Quebec City, Trois-Rivières, Montreal, St. John’s, Moncton, Halifax, Toronto, Midland (Ontario), Winnipeg/St. Boniface, Edmonton, Yellowknife, Vancouver and Ottawa/Hull. In some of those cities, he visited major Canadian pilgrimage sites: Sainte-Anne de Beaupré, Cap-de-la-Madeleine, St. Joseph’s Oratory and the Canadian Martyrs Shrine in Midland. Millions of Canadians turned out to greet the pontiff, pray with him and to celebrate, many of them deeply moved by his words and presence. His visit left a deep and lasting impression on our country.
During that historic 1984 visit, John Paul II endeared himself to Canadians and from the very beginning, and Canadians loved him. That affection reached its peak in 2002 when he returned to us as an elderly, infirm man and presided over World Youth Day 2002, his last great international youth event. He made us all feel young again. Though I did not choose the title for the book “A Saint for Canada,” more than any pope, John Paul II was ours in a very special way!
ZENIT: Tell us about Pope John Paul II’s relationship with the First Nations (Native Communities) in Canada?
Father Rosica: In 1984, bad weather had forced the cancellation of a visit prepared for Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories, where John Paul II was to meet with First Nations peoples. The pope felt so deeply sad about missing this visit with them that he promised to return. And he did, in 1987, when he spoke to Aboriginal peoples gathered from across the North. His reverence for the First Nations peoples and compassion for their history of suffering helped change the way Canadians viewed their own troubled relationship with their Aboriginal sisters and brothers.
ZENIT: What was it like to know a saint personally?
Father Rosica: I think I visited with Pope John Paul II five times before I was appointed to World Youth Day 2002, at least 12 times in preparation for World Youth Day 2002 and six times following World Youth Day and prior to his death in 2005. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, gave a great emphasis to holiness, and the call to holiness extended to everyone. And it’s very important that we see this call embodied in a person’s life. John Paul II was a man who was in constant dialogue with God. He was the pope of holiness. I knew that there was something extraordinary about this man. It was pretty clear that he lived with God, and he lived with us. Whenever I spoke with him, I knew that I was talking with someone who was a friend of God. Each time I was with him, and for that matter each time I am with a holy person, I go away from that encounter with a deep desire to pray, to spend more time with God, and to be a better person. I think one of the great qualities of holy persons is that they give us a “holy jealousy” – making the rest of us thirst for God, desire to be holy and to be a better people.
ZENIT: You mention a theory for why young people had such a great love for John Paul II. What is that?
Father Rosica: John Paul II enjoyed an incredible popularity with young Catholics. At the World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, he called the young people of the world his “joy and his crown”. In July 2002 in Toronto, he showed us the same. Young people today are experiencing an extreme crisis of fatherhood. I am convinced that they flocked to him because in many cases he was the father they never had and the grandfather who had been so painfully absent in their lives. John Paul II was a rock, a moral compass, and a very demanding friend. He made all of us discover our youthfulness, generosity and joy as he invited us to become salt and light in a world, a society and a culture that is so cynical, so tasteless and so often devoid of the flavor and joy of the Gospel and the light and hope of Christ.
From the beginning of his Pontificate, he insisted on meeting young people whenever he visited Roman parishes or foreign countries. Building on a tradition begun by his predecessor, Paul VI in the twilight years of his reign (1976), John Paul II invited hoards of young people to Rome in 1984 for the Jubilee Year of the Redemption, and in March 1985 for the International Year of Youth, when, on Palm Sunday, he established World Youth Days as a permanent event. “No one invented the World Youth Days. It was the young people themselves who created them”, John Paul II wrote in his 1994 book, Crossing The Threshold of Hope. In actual fact, he first sought them out; they then discovered him. Most of the World Youth Days, including ours in Canada, have been something of a surprise for priests and bishops, in that they surpassed all our expectations!
John Paul II issued to young people a clarion call to commitment. To his young friends he said: “Many and enticing are the voices that call out to you from all sides: many of these voices speak to you of a joy that can be had with money, success, and power. Mostly they propose a joy that comes with the superficial and fleeting pleasure of the senses.” The alternative call was Jesus’ siren song. “He calls you to be the salt and light of the world, to live in justice, to become instruments of love and peace.” The choice was stark, self-denying, life-defining, irrevocable. It was between, “good and evil, between light and darkness, between life and death.” There were no shortcuts or compromises for John Paul II, only clarity. And that is what the young are seeking today, not quick answers but Gospel clarity.
How many people are not afraid anymore because they saw a Pope who was not afraid. How many young seminarians and religious have spoken their “yes” because of him! How many young couples have made permanent commitments in marriage because of his profound theology of the body! How many ordinary people have done extraordinary things because of his influence, his teaching and his gestures!
ZENIT: John Paul II wrote and preached volumes. Even in focusing on a specific element, such as his ministry to Canada, how does one begin to digest or sort through such a huge body of teaching and a powerful message?
Father Rosica: Pope John Paul II tirelessly travelled the world, bringing to women and men of every race, nation and culture, a message of hope; that human dignity is rooted in the fact that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God. The Holy Father’s courageous and steadfast witness to the power of the Risen Lord has been the hallmark of his Pontificate– in which he has opened wide the doors of many human hearts and of many nations to Christ. By his witness and preaching of the Catholic faith, the Holy Father has had a great part in changing the course of history. The body of teaching that he left us is staggering- immense, accessible, rich and transforming. It is now up to us to unpack the gift of his teaching and appropriate it in our lives.
The challenge to the Church in Canada, and for that matter to the Church in each country, is to deepen its relationship with the living communion of faith of the whole Church. Canada has much from its experience to offer to the universal Church – about tolerance, peace, social justice, a significant, rich heritage of Saints and Blesseds who brought us the faith. That is the mission of the Church in Canada as well. We cannot forget the deeply Christian roots and heritage of this country. This is not only a religious question but also of an anthropological order since human identity cannot be separated or divorced from its Christian identity. In an increasingly secularised world the place and role of religion in our cultural identity must be re-evaluated and re-vitalised. There can be no future without a past. Our present has been formed by a Christian heritage handed down to us; will future generations to come have a similar Christian heritage to hand on?
To order your copy of “John Paul II: A Saint for Canada” visit:
Fr. Rosica may be reached at [email protected]
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, was National Director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 in Canada. He is founder and CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network since 2003. Appointed by Pope Benedict as Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in 2009, he served as English language Media Attaché at the Synods of Bishops of 2008 and 2012. He has been English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office since the Papal transition of 2013.