His 83rd birthday celebrations on May 18 underscored the continued vitality of Pope John Paul II. The climate in Rome this year is one of joyous thanksgiving for the Pope. Every few weeks, our Rome correspondent finds a new conference, symposium or meeting in preparation for the Holy Father's 25th anniversary as pope this October.
But they needn't look into the past for the Pope's achievements. In two of his pontificate's chief concerns, human rights and holiness, he has been as active in 2003 as ever.
First were his tireless pleas for a peaceful resolution to the situation in Iraq, even as he denounced the human-rights violations there. While he said war mustn't be avoided “at any cost,” he put front and center the concerns the world has for peace in our difficult time. His actions have been credited even by his opponents with helping avoid a worse conflagration.
At the same time, John Paul reminded the world of the universal call to holiness by declaring the Year of the Rosary and issuing a new encyclical on the Eucharist.
The Pope spent his 83rd birthday May 18 canonizing four saints – fittingly two Poles and two Italians – and tirelessly teaching once again that human rights are not only to be studied in law faculties but must be fought for in the vast fields of culture.
St. Joseph Sebastian Pelczar (1842–1924) was a professor and rector of Poland's most important university, the Jagiellonian University in Krakow – the Pope's alma mater. Later he served 25 years as bishop of Przemysl, a diocese near Krakow, during a time when Poland did not exist on the map of Europe.
St. Joseph Pelczar was a pioneering bishop in the importance of culture in defending the rights of Poles. He gave himself tirelessly to both pastoral and intellectual work, producing a vast body of magisterial and intellectual works. Sound familiar?
The other new Polish saint, St. Urszula Ledóchowska (1865–1939) began as an ordinary Ursuline sister of extraordinary holiness. After living in a Krakow convent for 21 years, she led a group of sisters to St. Petersburg in Russia, where religious life was prohibited.
They lived secretly, under constant surveillance by the secret police. In 1914 she was forced to leave Russia due to World War I and eventually returned to Poland, where she founded the Ursulines of the Sacred Agonizing Heart of Jesus. Her responsibilities meant that she had to come to Rome in 1928, where she died in 1939. Sound familiar?
The president of Poland and an enormous number of Polish bishops and faithful were in St. Peter's Square to see their two fellow citizens canonized as well as to sing Polish birthday songs to the Polish Pope.
It was, of course, the holiness of the saints that led to their canonizations. But the papal schedulers must have been pleased to have the canonization on the Pope's birthday.
And in a nice personal connection, St. Joseph Pelczar was the founder of the Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Krakow. Sisters from that congregation looked after Cardinal Karol Wojtyla's household there, and he brought them with him to Rome in 1978.
So closely do the sisters serve the papal household that when the Pope recently went to Spain, our Rome correspondent found the sisters in St. Peter's Basilica early on Sunday morning looking for a priest to celebrate Mass for them – their “chaplain” was away!
“To believe and to love: This is the program of your pontificate,” said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, in his official birthday wishes.
For his part, the Holy Father spent his birthday looking not at his own past but at the Church's future.
He thanked everybody who had sent birthday wishes and then added: “To each and every one, I ask that you continue to pray that God may help me to faithfully complete the mission which he has entrusted to me.”