Pope John Paul II's Heroic Sanctity

Prayer and charity were hallmarks of his pontificate — and his life.

(photo: CNS photo)

It’s said you just sort of know when you’re in the presence of sanctity. You don’t need much proof or clinical verification; nope — our “gut,” our hearts, our souls just sense it.

Holy Mother Church doesn’t stop here, of course, and I’m glad she doesn’t. She requires some “proofs,” such as widespread public veneration, miracles and a scrupulous study of the holy one’s life. I suppose she has been burned enough to know you always can’t trust your “gut.”

In the case of Blessed Pope John Paul II, we’ve got both.

My heart, soul and (rather considerable) “gut” can testify, from the vantage point of a box seat for at least seven years of his remarkable pontificate, that this was a man of remarkable, extraordinary, heroic sanctity.

As rector of the North American College from 1994-2001, I saw plenty. I had the honor of “watching him up close.” What did I see?

For one, I beheld a man of mystical prayer. For example, at least a half dozen times, I had the privilege of concelebrating his daily morning Mass. When our small group would arrive, we would vest, and then be ushered into his private, cozy chapel. And there he would be, kneeling at the prie dieu, “locked in prayer.”

We would wait ... and wait. His silent prayer, with his face in his hands, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, the crucifix, the icon of his beloved Lady of Czestochowa, could not be rushed. He had been kneeling there since 6am, we found out.

Occasionally, you could hear from him a groan, or a sigh (like Jesus let out in his prayer).

And crammed into the kneeler would be notes, cards, envelopes — all with intentions he had received from all over the world. I would tear up because I knew the name of my little niece, Shannon, suffering from bone cancer, was among the hundreds of scraps of paper, as the Holy Father would bring them all to Jesus.

Finally, usually five or 10 minutes after 7am, the time the early morning Mass was supposed to commence (for, I hate to tell you, promptness was not among his long litany of virtues), his loyal secretary, Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz (now cardinal archbishop of Krakow) would come over to whisper to his boss that it was time to begin the greatest of all prayers, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. And to watch him at Mass, especially at the consecration, was to see holiness in action.

There’s the first indication of heroic sanctity: mystical prayer.

A second sign of his amazing sanctity would be what I can only describe as “built-in radar” for those who were hurting. So, for instance, I’d bring in a group of, say, a hundred people: our men to be ordained and their folks. I would know that one of the moms was still in sadness because her husband had just died a few weeks before or that one of the dads had just received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. And guess to whom the beatus would immediately head? Right to the hurting ones! Like Jesus, he seemed to “just know” that some of his flock needed a special hug, a word of love, a promise of prayer, a blessing. Yes, he’d try to greet every person, but he’d go first to those he sensed were in a struggle, and he’d spend some extra time with them.

And they’d always ask on the way out, “How did he know?” as if I had been holding cue cards to guide him. He just seemed to know, I’d try to explain; he had such a tender heart and sharp pastoral sense that he went right to the struggling ones.

Prayer ... charity. Come to think of it, the two qualities the Church always looks for in a saint.

Tough to certify either of them ... but, the heart knows ... and the Church now knows that Blessed John Paul II had them to a radiant degree.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York was rector of the Pontifical North American College from 1994 to 2001.