Rome must be filled with excitement this weekend: Pope John Paul II will be beatified on Sunday, May 1st, the 'last step' toward full canonization or sainthood. This move on the part of the Catholic Church has led to some controversy with regards to the speed of the process (for the record, it's not the first time--St. Francis of Assisi was canonized only a few years after his death), and some eyebrows have been raised over the display of a vial of the Pope's blood in the manner of a holy relic at the Vatican. (Blood that was taken before a surgery for a possible transfusion but was never used.) But this weekend offers the chance to reflect on the good things John Paul II accomplished. I for one always admired his openness to dialogue regarding other spiritual traditions: his visits to the Jewish synagogue in Rome and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; his visit to Greece, the first made by a pope since the Catholic and Orthodox churches formally split in the eleventh century, to dialogue with Orthodox leaders; his meetings with spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama and the creation of the World Day of Prayer for Peace under his authority, just to name a few examples.
I am sure anyone who was fortunate to encounter the Pope in person is thinking about it this weekend. In one of those wonderfully serendiptious moments of travel, I received a ticket to one of the Wednesday papal audiences during my 2004 trip to Rome. I was staying in a convent hotel, and at breakfast one of the Sisters was distributing free invitations to guests. I had been planning a visit to the Roman Forum that morning...but the Pope! Who could refuse! I arrived at Saint Peter's Square filled with anticipation, clutching my bright yellow card, only to learn that bright yellow cards led to seats on the platform closest to the Pope. "Keep going," one of the ushers said, waving me forward. "Up there." I stared at him in surprise: "Really?!" I would not say my seat was super close, but it was close enough to have a good look at the pontiff without binoculars. Then, when the Popemobile entered the Square, a huge rush of cheers, excitement, and happiness flowed among the thousands of people waiting for JP II to arrive. The Pope was quite frail by then and could barely speak, but his spirit felt strong, and the joy he derived from the crowds -- especially from the many young people gathered there -- was plain to see on his face. It was a great day.
US Cable subscribers will be able to watch the ceremonies on EWTN network: the vigil for the beatification at the Circus Maximus this afternoon live, then replayed tonight, and the beatification ceremony at the Vatican live in the wee hours of the morning, replayed Sunday evening.