Take it from one who spent a fair amount of time around Pope John Paul II, observing him at nearly every public appearance and a fair number of private audiences for a period of about seven years.
As a Vatican-accredited journalist, I saw the pope interact with hundreds of thousands of people (millions?), both in vast crowds and one-on-one (including me, every once in a while).
Yes, he was charismatic. Yes, he was a great preacher. Yes, he was a great people person. Yes, he was clearly a man of prayer, reflective, maybe even a mystic of sorts.
But he didn’t strike me as “a saint,” in the sense of those extraordinary figures you run across in your typical book of lives of the saints.
While he was an extraordinary human being, he was also very ... ordinary. No smells of roses around him, no hovering above the ground, no doves alighting on his shoulders, no magical aura or electricity.
That became especially true as he aged and his body succumbed more and more to the effects of Parkinson’s. He lost control of his facial muscles, so he drooled nearly constantly. Sometimes it looked like he had trouble getting his head off his chest.
One event I witnessed impressed me for its ordinary humanity. I was traveling with the pope on his 100th foreign trip, and Shepherd One had just landed in a city in Croatia. I had a window seat with the Vatican press corps at the back of the plane, and looked out below me at the pope being transferred from a wheelchair to a vehicle that would take him to an event. His secretary made a move to help him up, but the pope impatiently slapped his hand away, insisting on standing up by himself.
He was stubborn, and maybe even a little irritable.
And yet, the man is a saint.
For me that’s encouraging. Too often, sanctity is thought of as a state in which you are no longer yourself; to achieve it you have to act like some idealized other self. When in fact, sanctity is really the purification of who we really are through a process of greater selflessness, trust in God and love of neighbor. There’s no act; it is the truest, most honest version of ourselves.
A few weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI underscored again that holiness is not for a select view; it is within the reach of all.
He boiled down the path to holiness to three essentials: “It seems to me that this is the true simplicity and greatness of a life of holiness: the encounter with the Risen One on Sunday; contact with God at the beginning and at the end of the day; following, in decisions, the ‘signposts’ that God has communicated to us, which are but forms of charity.”
So: Mass, daily prayer, seeking God’s will. What do you make of that?