Rome — “When did you first know he was a saint?” It’s a question Joaquín Navarro-Valls gets often and especially now, in the days surrounding the canonization of his former boss, now Saint John Paul II. Navarro-Valls served as press director for the Holy See during JPII’s pontificate and, speaking to Catholic communicators at a conference at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross here, he remembers “the first time I saw him pray.”
“A person who prayed the way he did could not not be a saint.” He was “deeply bound to God.” He “didn’t move, he didn’t flinch” when in prayer. “Praying was like breathing for him,” Navarro-Valls adds. He recalls how John Paul II would step into his chapel before and after dinner. One particular evening, he got so immersed in prayer that his typical two-minute visit became a much longer one, for which he later apologized to Navarro-Valls, who was in the chapel with him. As Navarro-Valls puts it: “He had taken off. He was talking to someone else.” Any picture of him praying, Navarro-Valls said, “was the most eloquent expression of his inner soul.” And that smile was revelatory as well, sharing the joy and peace of a man who could bring himself to forgive the man who shot him.
On Wednesday, I attended my first papal audience with Pope Francis. People had begun lining up before dawn to get a good spot, the most coveted being just behind a barricade, preferably holding a baby for optimum chance to get a photo with the pope. There was a little something untoward about the whole thing — when the pope appeared, if you looked forward and upward all you could see was smartphones. The only thing that seemed to be taking off was the contest to click first and fastest. But when I looked around, even in the crowd, even with the occasional push to the front, there was a man thoroughly undistracted, sitting on the ground praying the Rosary. There was a couple with a newborn, here to pray with the Holy Father. There was a group of nuns, who knew the real Star of the show is the Savior of the world, not a pope who has become a celebrity, having for now met with favor from much of the media, which sees his open invitation and has some progressive hopes and dreams for the man.
For those I walked with the night before the canonization Mass, Jesus Christ is a guiding, transformational light in the world, their joy and hope. They lined the Via della Conciliazione, where they would stay until morning, in the hopes of making it into the Square to pray with the successor of Peter. They came as members of the Body of Christ, giving thanks for the lives of two saints who modeled the universal call to holiness that not only makes for a happy life but is a good thing for the world, especially for the poor and the suffering. They slept in the streets that night and awoke singing praise to God because they know who they are — their identity is as children of God, conformed by His cross and redeemed by His Resurrection. That, and not the free ham at the supermarket or the chance to wear an Easter bonnet, is the point of the annual Easter celebration.
These people in the streets, who came from throughout Europe, and most especially John Paul II’s native Poland, are “God’s holy faithful people.” “Every time he speaks,” Austen Ivereigh, co-founder of Catholic Voices in England, who is writing a book on Pope Francis, said of Francis during the same conference at which Navarro-Valls spoke, “the Pope is making a connection with a body of people, hidden from the media, unnoticed by politics, who preserve the faithful culture.” It’s a phrase he used back in Argentina — el santo pueblo fiel de Dios – “as a way of conceptualizing an evangelized popular culture which preserved the values of the nation.”
El santo pueblo fiel de Dios are those for whom the United Nations did not speak this week as they let a committee on torture be commandeered to bully the Church, to use the horrific evil of the abuse of children — as well as, perversely, the Church’s insistence on upholding human dignity on matters of life and death and marriage — as a bludgeon with which to try to silence its voice. But as the elderly woman or the teenage girl on her knees on the cobblestones of Rome knows full well, the Church does not teach evil; priests who abused children were not living the Gospel, were not faithful to Christ’s teaching.
“We see evil is trying to find his way among us, but it can’t turn us blind before the goodness, and we need to fight to keep this flame in our hearts,” Father Frans van der Lugt, S.J., a Dutch missionary, wrote just before he was murdered last month in Syria. “We are preparing ourselves to Easter, reflecting on crossing from death to resurrection. We feel like we are in the valley of the shadows, but we can see that light far away, leading us to life again.”
Here in the West, all that most of us ever have to do is show up now and again and pray — not even on cobblestones — to give an answer for our joy, or vote with the common good in mind. And we don’t always. Too often our prayer becomes merely for our Sabbath day or special occasions, as a new intolerance wants to keep it privatized and let radically secular values rule. This has been our course in the West over recent decades. But that’s not enough. It’s not living the radical Gospel Christ taught. And it is not enough to buttress civil society with moral virtue and help men and women flourish. God’s holy faithful people, inspired by a saint who stood up to the Soviet Union and seemed to have no fear, can turn this around. The flame ablaze in their hearts — if even but a glimmer in darkness — demands it and may warm even some secularized hearts that have confused the preeminent field hospital with an enemy.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a founder of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.