Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
It’s official. Blessed John Paul II will be canonized on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014, in Rome.
He is already being commemorated here in the U.S. On the first Saturday in July, saintly John Paul II appeared in South Carolina, in statue form.
There he stands, with that famous smile of his captured so beautifully in a larger-than-life statue at the Shrine of Our Lady of South Carolina, Mother of Joyful Hope.
The statue is so lifelike it even surprises Father Stanley Smolenski, the rector of the shrine in Kingstree, S.C.
“It at first startled me whenever I entered the shrine, since it looked like someone was standing there!” he says, while telling how and why the John Paul II statue came to be there.
A Filipino couple, Rodrigo and Anicia Pangilinan, wanted to donate a statue to the shrine. They had close contacts with friends in the Philippines famous for woodcarving, especially religious statuary, and they wanted to know who Father Smolenski might choose for the statue's likeness.
“I asked for Blessed/St. John Paul II, since we follow his teaching on the Eucharist and Our Lady,” relates Father Smolenski.
The Pangilinans were overjoyed when he suggested John Paul II, as he is close to Anicia’s heart.
Father Smolenski requested a life-size image, which in statuary language usually means five feet tall. No wonder he was surprised when the statue — nearly seven feet tall, including its base — arrived this past summer.
The Pangilinans also had the rector choose what the Polish Pope's posture should be for the statue.
“It’s a friendly pose, not a formal pose,” says Father Smolenski. John Paul II’s hands are relaxed, and his smile signals a warm welcome to visitors and pilgrims.
Because it is unusually large, the sculptors had to wait until they got the right-sized tree trunk to carve it.
Rodrigo Pangilinan relates how the statue originated in Paete, Laguna, a Philippines province known for woodcarving of religious statues; the statue is carved from solid batikuling, a native wood favored for such work.
John Paul II’s connection to both gift givers and the shrine is a special one.
“Both of us, especially Anicia, have a special affection for Pope John Paul II,” relates Rodrigo.
“While living in Sydney, Anicia was able to meet the Pope and kiss the Pope's hand at the Sydney International Airport during his visit to Australia in November 1986,” he recalls. That same year, she moved to the United States.
Then, in October 1995, Anicia was working for a deacon who gave her a ticket to attend John Paul II’s Mass in Central Park in New York City that year. She was disappointed immediately afterward, since she was unable to see the Holy Father because of the huge crowd.
“On her way home, while walking along Fifth Avenue towards the closest subway station, she asked one of the policemen guarding the visit if the Pope had passed by already,” Rodrigo recalls. “He told her that the Pope left.”
Then, suddenly, the Popemobile was coming towards her, turning at the street corner where she was standing.
“The Pope was waving and blessing the few people left on the street,” Rodrigo recounts. Anicia was overwhelmed as she blew kisses to the Pope.
“So the statue is dedicated to Blessed Pope John Paul II, who touched everyone's life through his visits and appearances in this modern age,” Rodrigo explains.
The shrine has its own very strong connection to the soon-to-be saint.
“Blessed/St. John Paul II is, in a sense, the spiritual father of this shrine,” the rector says, “because of his importance in regards to the message of the shrine.”
Father Smolenski points out that the shrine and the icon of Our Lady of South Carolina, Mother of Joyful Hope originated as part of the Charleston Diocese’s celebration of the Year of the Rosary in 2003. So the charism and the spirituality of the shrine follows all of John Paul II’s teachings, principally his apostolic letter on the Rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, and his encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia.
“As I tell people, there are no apparitions or locutions here, but there is a message we have from Our Lady that directs us,” says Father Smolenski. “We follow the message of Our Lady at Cana (John 2:5): ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ On that occasion, 'he' was Jesus; now it is his vicar: ‘Do whatever the Pope tells you.’ So we follow his Eucharistic and Marian teaching.”
In fact, the charism is beautifully captured in a chapter title from the Eucharist encyclical, which was published during the Year of the Rosary: “In the School of Mary, Woman of the Eucharist.”
Father Smolenski says, “At the Cologne World Youth Day celebration, Pope Benedict said that we must activate John Paul II's teaching. That's another ‘Do whatever the Pope tells you.’"
“At the shrine, we’re trying to activate John Paul’s Marian and Eucharistic teachings on the diocesan level because it’s a diocesan shrine,” Father Smolenski explains. He co-founded the shrine with Bishop Robert Baker, who is now the bishop of the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala.
The original icon of Our Lady of South Carolina, Mother of Joyful Hope has another connection to John Paul.
“It was John Paul II’s Year of the Rosary that inspired the icon,” Father Smolenski says.
The Syriac-style icon presents Our Lady standing and holding the Child Jesus.
The shrine's icon also “includes the Rosary and the Eucharist, the two major themes of our charism,” says Father Smolenski. “Our Lady holds the rosary, her ‘School of the Gospel,’ and the Christ Child holds the Eucharist, the ‘source and summit of our Christian life.’”
He explains the significant tie to John Paul II. “In Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he said: ‘To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.’”
Then John Paul II emphasized: “To contemplate the face of Christ, and to contemplate it with Mary, is the ‘program’ which I have set before the Church at the dawn of the third millennium.”
John Paul II’s intercession is special to those at the shrine and all of its visitors.
“I pray to him that he takes our shrine to his heart, because we are trying to implement his teaching on a diocesan scale. At the end of his letter on the Rosary, he said, ‘May this appeal of mine not go unheard!’ So I pray to him, ‘May my prayer to you not go unheard!’" the rector shares.
Already, Father Smolenski anticipates more honors after canonization. He would not be surprised if John Paul II were to be named “a doctor of the Church someday and also eventually called John Paul II the Great.”
For the moment, the statue is reminding visitors of the saintly Pope and the shrine’s teachings, as it anticipates the canonization of John Paul II.
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.