Pilgrims witness history as Popes John XXIII, John Paul II canonized

Bishop Stika, Cardinal Rigali celebrate Masses in Rome with Diocese of Knoxville group 

Among the hundreds of thousands of Catholic faithful in St. Peter’s Square on Divine Mercy Sunday to witness history as Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were canonized were a group of parishioners from the Diocese of Knoxville joined by Bishop Richard F. Stika and Cardinal Justin Rigali.

The 14 diocesan members, including Father Charlie Donahue, CSP, pastor of St. John XXIII Parish on the University of Tennessee campus, and Deacon Sean Smith, chancellor of the diocese, were on a canonization pilgrimage to Rome and the Vatican directed by tour operator Select International. The group left for Rome April 21 and returned to the diocese April 29.

Bishop Stika and Cardinal Rigali, who processed into the canonization Mass ahead of Pope Francis, celebrated Masses for the diocesan pilgrims in the days leading up to Divine Mercy Sunday. April 27 also was called the day of four popes, a reference to the rare historic event where two popes were being elevated into sainthood during a canonization Mass celebrated by Pope Francis and concelebrated by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Lisa Morris, a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who was on the pilgrimage, was inspired by the sights and sounds surrounding the canonizations – from the beauty, majesty and holiness of St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square to the saintly outpost of Assisi.

“In so many ways it was a blessing and a real miracle. Pope John Paul II has had such a profound influence on me over the past 10 years because of his ‘Theology of the Body’ and impact on the pro-life movement,” Mrs. Morris said, adding that the more she learned about St. John XXIII the more respect she gained for him.

The Knoxville pilgrims, who joined pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on the weeklong trip, left their Rome hotel at 1 a.m. on Divine Mercy Sunday for St. Peter’s Square. The historic square holds about 500,000 people and the Knoxville-Philadelphia group was able to get inside the square, where Pope Francis celebrated the canonization Mass. Hundreds of thousands of people spilled over into the streets of Rome to be part of the historic event and watched the Mass on big-screen televisions spread out around Rome.

Despite being at the canonization Mass for several hours, Mrs. Morris said the time passed quickly.

“I’ve never been in a crowd that big, and when Mass started you could hear a pin drop. It was so reverent,” she said. “It gave me a renewed awe and wonder of the beauty of the Church. It was a beautiful thing to be a part of and a beautiful thing to witness.”

Mrs. Morris was moved by the hundreds of priests who were dispatched to communion stations around St. Peter’s Square during Mass.

“It was so beautiful to see people hungering for the bread of life. It was Jesus feeding the thousands. It was just incredible,” she said.

Deacon Smith said the canonization Mass was evidence that the Church truly is global.

“We always refer to the Catholic Church as the universal Church. We learn that. But it wasn’t until I was at the canonization that the description came alive to me. I was surrounded by Catholic faithful from more than 100 countries,” Deacon Smith said.

“When you look out through Vatican Square and the road leading to the Vatican and you see more than 800,000 people with flags, it was profound. The universality was just amazing,” he added.

Another profound impact on Deacon Smith was the historical significance of the dual canonizations.

“I believe it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see two popes, Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, celebrating Mass,” he said.

For Lourdes Garza, director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Knoxville, her first official Church pilgrimage was “a dream come true.”

“I prayed for it for so long. It was everything I expected it to be,” Ms. Garza said.

She agreed with Deacon Smith that the canonization Mass reflected a true global Church.

“Being together as the Church on the occasion of the canonization of the popes was a verification of our universal church: diversity and unity, all for the Glory of God. The energy and enthusiasm of the youth that surrounded me, while waiting for the Wednesday general audience to begin, reminded me that our Church is in good hands in the future generations,” Ms. Garza said.

She added that a side trip to Assisi was everything she was told it would be: peaceful, holy, historical, and beautiful.

“I studied basic Italian for months because I want to understand Pope Francis well. However, my knowledge of Spanish makes it easier every day. In whatever language, I cannot ever forget the chills that went through my body when Pope Francis rode by just five rows away from us. What a thrill to see our Shepherd in person,” she said.

Bishop Stika and Father Donahue posted text, photos, and video on Facebook of the group’s activities, including close-up images of the canonization Mass.Deacon Smith also shared photos of the Mass.

The canonizations of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II were enthusiastically received by members of St. John XXIII University Parish and the Saint John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge. Father Rich Andre, CSP, associate pastor of St. John XXIII Parish in Knoxville, used the opportunity during weekend Masses April 26-27 to recognize original members of the church, which was one of the first in the country to be named for the newly named saint in 1968.

The churches in Rutledge and on the UT-Knoxville campus are expected to undergo name modifications in the near future under the direction of Bishop Stika.

Father Steve Pawelk, GHM, pastor of Saint John Paul II Catholic Mission, and Father Aaron Wessman, GHM, associate pastor of the mission, have been anticipating the canonization, as have members of the saintly namesake church.

Father Pawelk and Father Wessman also are anxiously awaiting the canonization of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, for whom the Catholic mission in Maynardville is named.