"I hate you."
This was not, in fairness, the response I had expected to receive to my news, but it was — in a joking way — an understandable one.
I told several friends over the last months that I would be attending the canonizations of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, and the reply was the same …”I hate you.”
It was not a reaction of jealousy or pettiness, but one of sudden emotion in the face of wanting to be there for the day that John Paul II, already “the Great” becomes Saint John Paul II.
Anyone who lived during his pontificate has stories to tell about how he changed their lives or where they were perhaps the day he was elected, the day he was shot, some event during a papal trip or the long day and evening as the entire world kept vigil when he went to God. Those are strong emotional memories for Catholics.
They are even more powerful for the untold numbers of non-Catholics who came into the Church during John Paul’s extraordinary 27 years as pope. They were drawn by his clarity, his energy and his powerful words: “Be not Afraid.” And these converts — like the millions of Catholics around the planet who belong to the “John Paul II Generations” — all want to be here, in Rome, when the man who altered the trajectories of their lives is recognized by the Church officially for being what so many of us thought he was during his lifetime; a Saint.
Even getting to Rome brought a sense of palpable excitement. The four-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris that completed my journey to Rome was marked by several remarkable sights and sounds.
As we all sat waiting passing the time, a group of pilgrims began chanting Morning Prayer and quietly singing hymns. The passengers at the surrounding gates first quizzically looked around and then grew silent listening. They did not scowl or roll their eyes; they listened attentively, and a few asked what was going on. In several languages, I heard the words “John Paul II,” “Giovanni Paolo,” “Juan Pablo” and “Jean Paul.”
There were also large contingents of Africans, Americans, French and Dutch Catholics on board the flight. By my informal count, my flight alone had three bishops. They will be joining the 150 Cardinals and 1,000 bishops, along with the more than 90 official delegations from various countries and 24 heads of state or royalty and perhaps several million pilgrims.
It is expected that volunteers will hand out four million free water bottles and 150,000 liturgical booklets. Well more than a thousand extra portable toilets are being put into place close to St. Peter’s Square, and 17 giant video screens will broadcast the Mass live around the city, including one at the departure lounge of Rome’s Fiumicino airport.
The Square is already packed with pilgrims as the Vatican’s workers, among them the dedicated Sampietrini (workers of St. Peter’s), labor to finish scaffolding for the hundreds of television cameras and the several thousand journalists who have arrived in the Eternal City. I have heard that many young people, unable to afford hotels or hostels, let alone find available ones at this late hour, are planning to arrive on Saturday and then sleep in St. Peter’s Square before leaving Monday morning. It means that much for them to be here.
So I can hardly blame friends for having an emotional response to the news not so much that I was going but that that circumstances made it impossible for them to be here. I know I was profoundly impacted by John Paul II. All of us were.
Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.