When I grew up in Switzerland, capuchins would travel to our small village and go house to house begging for the poor, offering spiritual guidance and prayers for the parents, and bring holy cards for the kids. St. Francis was my favorite. The cards showed him talking to animals and having a beautiful halo around his head against a light blue sky in the background. It was beautiful, like a fairytale. Saints were for heaven – people who lived a long time ago and in a different world.
And then as a young man I was accepted into the Swiss Guard, the military unit that protects the pope. There I met John Paul II and he changed my understanding of what it means to be and know a saint.
It is a great privilege of the Swiss Guards to be around the pope at all times. We are there in the background, silent but watchful, ensuring the pope’s personal security. What impressed me about John Paul II at first wasn’t what he said or what he wrote, but what he did, how he lived. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more fully human person in my life. He did all things well, consciously. He was fully present in whatever he did – whether it be saying hello to me as he passed by or greeting a head of state.
As a young person, not knowing what I wanted from life, overwhelmed with the choices I had to make for my future, insecure about myself and unclear about what my goals were – I came to admire this man and how he lived. I remember one day watching him as he interacted with some visitors joyfully, seriously and lovingly all at the same time. He was excellent in the true meaning of the word. I thought: ”Whatever this man has is what I want!”
I admired John Paul II, and I think he knew it. But unlike other role models, he didn’t “take” my admiration for himself. Instead, he pointed away from himself. He’d say, “Everyone can have what I have!” and explained how to create, nurture and maintain a relationship with God. It’s like he became a signpost pointing to heaven.
I did not realize until much later that this is what it means to be a saint: to point the way to God. Saints are those who lived a life like ours, who struggled like we do, who hoped like we do, who faced the choices we do – and sinned like we do. Saints are those who went before us and achieved excellence in being human. They are the models of who we aspire to be.
It’s easier for us to use some examples of people who lived recently rather than only focus on saints who lived hundreds of years ago. After all, we all did meet Saint John Paul II in some way or another. And many of us met Saint John XXIV.
Popes John XXIII and John Paul II are two of the most well known popes in the past few hundred years. Two popes of the people. They both came from humble backgrounds and small villages. They both loved being a priest and pastor.
Through their writings, but even more so through their acting, they won a place in so many our hearts – being named “man of the year” by Time magazine in 1962 and 1994 respectively. Their presence revived the public appeal of the papacy – in both cases expanding dramatically the amount of people coming to public events and pontifical masses.
Both popes would have been declared saints, were it still the Church’s policy to go by the acclamation of the crowd. Instead, the two are now declared saints together, to make an even stronger statement about the lives of two simple country-boys who rose to the occasion to change the world. Each brought their particulars to the job at hand. In this regard, John XXIII wrote in his journal: “If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way. “ He knew that sainthood for every one of us looks different.
They loved life – Pope John saying to some visitors: “We will pray for you…. And you, pray for your pope. For, to be frank, let me tell you that I want to live a long time. I love life!”
John Paul II loved not just philosophy, theology and science; he also loved the theater, circus, poetry and sports. Even as pope, he continued to go hiking, swimming and skiing. A key memory in my mind is of his hearty laughter that so beautifully conveyed his joy of life.
Good Pope John and John Paul the Great. It is no accident that the two of them are being declared saints together: They were such a big part of our lives – not just we knew their name or image, but when we think of them we feel that we know them like a friend. We can relate to them and they played a role in our lives. They are not far off saints; they are the saints next door.
When I look at the old St. Francis Holy Card, I have a very different sense of it. It’s also not my favorite one any longer. I have a new one, with a picture of John Paul II on it. He’s not a fairytale. I knew him and learned from him while he was alive. Now that he’s in heaven, I use his picture to remind me that I want what he has.