In the service of saints

Walking into the Piazza San Pietro this morning on the way to the Vatican Press Center, two shocking sights greeted me. The first was the staggering size of the crowds that are now filling the entire area around St. Peter’s Basilica. I was told by a police officer that the wait just to get into St. Peter’s was several hours as the line serpentined around the square in a way that reminded everyone of the lines to visit John Paul II as he lay in state back in 2005.

The second was the sudden appearance of the two beautiful tapestries — typical for canonizations — of John XXIII and John Paul II that will adorn the façade of the basilica for the next days and that will be some of the great visual centerpieces of the canonization on Sunday. There they were, John and John Paul, but now with halos. They are, indeed, saints, and they tower over the piazza.

This was a metaphor for their pontificates, but they served also as a poignant introduction to the event that took place this afternoon at the press center. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz and Cardinal Loris Capovilla were part of a press conference in which they offered some extremely unique perspectives on the two new saints. Dziwisz served for 39 years as secretary to Karol Wojtyla, including his entire pontificate as John Paul II, and Capovilla for 10 years to Angelo Roncalli as John XXIII, including his whole pontificate. Both were crucial witnesses in the causes for canonization, and both had some fascinating things to say about their former bosses.

Capovilla, 98 years old and a priest since 1940, joined the press conference via video and warmed the polyglot gathering of reporters by confessing he was “an old priest,” who was “emotional, confused and intimidated” by the technology. His candor earned him several rounds of applause.

He served John from the time he was Patriarch of Venice and then as pope, and looking back over some 60 years, he spoke so vividly that the events of those days clearly had stayed with him. He described John as a saint in the way that “Saints are those who remain children.” When John died in 1963, the cardinal said, “I did not witness the death of an old man. I saw a child die,” with a prayer on his lips. And as John passed away, then Father Capovilla apologized for not being a better secretary. The pontiff dismissed the notion, thanked his faithful secretary and made note of the fact that in the hard years of getting the council underway, the two of them had not “collected the stones thrown at them.”

The capacity for endurance and bearing the weight of crisis was certainly a hallmark of Stanislaw Dziwisz. He met Karol Wojtyla while a seminarian and became his closest aide, serving his boss in Communist Poland and then throughout John Paul’s global pilgrimages. Like Capovilla, Dziwisz served to the very end, but before that he watched as John Paul II was shot in 1981 by Mehmet Ali Agca and later grew frail from Parkinson’s Disease and other infirmities.

Prayer, Dziwisz says, was the heart of John Paul’s life. “People often ask me,” he said, “how many hours a day he prayed. He prayed with his life. You cannot divide his prayer from his life. His whole life was a prayer and everything that happened passed through prayer.” Especially prayer in suffering, prayer in redemptive suffering. He offered his suffering for the world, because “Christ saved the world through the cross.”

Both men share an exclusive bond. It was evident in the way that Dziwisz watched the screen as Capovilla spoke. The two can appreciate not just what it was like to work for popes but what it meant to share their lives with saints. It was a transforming experience. Both went on to become cardinals, not as a reward for their service but because the experiences of life with the saints made them invaluable as pastors of souls.

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.