Monday, April 28, 2014

The Canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II

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Fr. michael Denk Canonization

Today was defiantly a historic moment in our church and certainly a day I will never forget.  I am truly grateful that God has brought me here as a priest to be with these four popes that have shaped me so much.

We left our hotel at 6:30 am to begin our trek to the Vatican.  It was normally only a fifteen minute walk, but we were informed by another priest that we had to enter on the opposite side near the entrance for the scavi tour.  Most people know this entrance by the Swiss Guards at the gate.  If you are standing right at the doors of the Vatican facing the Vatican and go to your left that is where we had to enter.  

As you know we had gotten our tickets a few days before and we had to hold them in the air as we passed through each check point.  It was standing and waiting in line with a thousand other priests that Fr. Terry gave me his classic look and said: “Priest shortage… What?”   It was great to see priests from all over the world but I found myself anxious to try to talk to them because I had no idea what language they spoke.  When we got in to the seating area it was funny to see that priests are just as excited as the people to see the Pope.  Even the older priests were scrambling to get the closest seats.  

I had been thinking and praying for my group all night.  Because they were not issuing tickets (other than clergy and dignitaries) most people, if they wanted to get into the square had to spend the night outside waiting.  It turned out to be a very difficult experience for them but for those that found a spot and made it through the night they had a wonderful time, met some great new friends from Texas and found it an experience they will never forget.  I have to say, though I am truly grateful for the sleep and having a ticket, I wanted to be in that crowd overnight anticipating this gathering.  

I learned a lesson from the last time I saw Pope Benedict that it’s better to have a seat by the side even than to be closer up, because if he comes in procession you’ll be right there.  

Fr. Terry and I found some seats right along the edge… well  as close to the edge as we could get because it was lined up by large tough looking polish priests.  One of the Monsignor’s next to me seemed more like a bouncer than a priest.  We had a couple of hours to wait to mass.  I was glad Fr. Terry was with me because I was able to go to Confession on Divine Mercy Sunday ust before mass with the Pope.  I love going to confession and that was a great image of two priests in the midst of all of these others being immersed in the Father’s Divine Mercy.  

The crowd was surprisingly subdued, maybe because I was in the midst of 5,000 priests.  There wasn’t the cheering and chanting and singing and applause like I was used to at World Youth Days.  Maybe it was because everybody was so tired.  I think everyone was so confused because they wanted to cheer for John Paul but didn’t want to neglect John XXIII.  As I reflected before I think John XXIII had just as much warmth and Charisma as John Paul, but John Paul is obviously more known and celebrated maybe because he was more recent and was the Pope for so long.  

We had nothing but time so I prayed the Rosary as well as the Divine Mercy Chaplet and then rested and dozed as I meditated on the wonder of being there with these four Papas that I loved so much.  

As mass was about to begin the Bishops and Cardinals filed out and then the screen showed Pope Benedict for the first time.  I was so glad that he was there as he had worked all of those years under John Paul II and though he is spending his final years in prayer and solitude it was so good of him to be present at this event.  He was the Pope at the time I was ordained and I handed him my Ordination Card seven years ago when I was there in the audience and he drove by in the Pope Mobile.  

It was so exciting and heart warming to watch as Pope Francis greeted him.  The mass began with the Litany of the Saints.  I have always been moved by this ancient chant which invokes all of the Saints to be with us, to intercede for us, and to be present especially at the Mass when we are surrounded by all of the angels and the saints and united with everyone else who is in communion with Christ.  

The prayers for the mass were powerful.  Everyone in the square was given a booklet that has the prayers, biographies of the two popes to be canonized, and the official pictures of Sts. John XXIII and JPII.  They really are a treasure of this wonderful and historic occasion. 

There were three petitions directed to the Holy Father at the beginning of mass:


The First Petition 

Most Holy Father,
Holy Mother Church earnestly beseeches Your Holiness to enroll Blessed
and John Paul II
among the Saints, that they may be invoked as such by all the Christian faithful.
Dear brothers,
let us lift up our prayers to God the Father Almighty through Jesus Christ, that through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all his Saints he may sustain with his grace the act which we now solemnly undertake.

 We ask you, Lord, graciously to accept the prayers of your people, that our de- voted service may be pleasing to you and contribute to the growth of your Church. Through Christ our Lord.

Second Petition

Most Holy Father, strengthened by unanimous prayer, Holy Church more earnestly beseeches Your Holiness to enroll these, her children, among the Saints.
Let us, then, invoke the Holy Spirit, the Giver of life, that he may enlighten our minds and that Christ the Lord may not permit his Church to err in a matter of such importance.

Third Petition

Most Holy Father,
Holy Church, trusting in the Lord’s promise to send upon her the Spirit of Truth, who in every age keeps the supreme Magisterium immune from error, most earnestly beseeches Your Holiness to enroll these, her elect, among the Saints.
 For the honour of the Blessed Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother Bishops, we declare and define 


and John Paul II

be Saints and we enroll them among the Saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Most Holy Father,
in the name of Holy Church I thank Your Holiness for making this proclamation and humbly request that you decree that the Apostolic Letter concerning the act of Canonization be drawn up.

The Holy Father, Pope Francis responded: “Decernimus."

We so decree.


The music was beautiful with instruments in harmony, the organ, and beautiful cantors singing.  The homily was rather brief but what I understand and remember is that Pope Francis was talking about how important “the family” was to John XXIII and we all know to John Paul II and they made the Church feel like a family.  Every year the Church promotes a teaching or a motto (Remember the year for Priests, the Year for Marriage, the Year for St. Paul, this past year was the Year of Faith).  This upcoming year will be dedicated to the Family.  

Communion even amongst the priests was a little organized chaos.  We did get to see one of our priests from Cleveland, Fr. Chris Trenta, distributing communion.  He is over here in Italy studying Liturgical Theology.  I think the time of mass that I felt God’s presence the most was after communion they announced a moment of silence.  It was deeply profound to be there with a million people, having received the Body of Christ, taken part in the Canonization of these two Saints in the presence of our two wonderful Popes.  

At the end of mass Pope Francis spent about an hour greeting every single dignitary and letting them take “selfies”, then he got into the pope mobile and drove right by us.  We were right at the fence and I stood on a chair shouting “Papa Francisco… Papa Francisco… Papa Francisco…’  by the time he looked over the car was past us.  But now I can say that I have seen this pope and got as close as I could to him.  In hindsight I wish I would have jumped over the fence and begged him for a  hug, but you just never know how that is going to go over.  

After mass we spent an hour or so just waiting for the crowds to clear out.  Fr. Terry and I decided that we might as well head back into the Vatican for one last time.  The Basicilica was only open for people to walk quickly by the tombs of the two Saints.  John Paul II’s tomb had already been changed to say “Sanctus” for St. John Paul II.  John XXIII’s tomb was beautifully decorated with dozens and dozens of fresh red roses to match his red garment and shoes.  He looked pretty good for a dead guy.  Really, though, it was very beautiful and I got to kneel and spend some time at his tomb just thanking God for the opportunity to once more be so near the body of a Saint.  I also thank St. John XXIII for the influence that he has had on my me and my priesthood.  

I grew up knowing John Paul II.  The first time I ever got to see him was at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 the summer after I had just graduated 8th grade.  I also got to see him at World Youth Day in Toronto.  My favorite memories of him at both events were when the millions in the crowd would chant "JPII we love you... JPII we love you... JPII... we love you..."  He would just smirk and and wait for a moment of pause and respond "JPII loves you too!"  I was most specifically shaped by him during my seminary time especially by the papal document that he wrote for the formation of Priests.   "I will give you Shepherds."  PASTORES DABO VOBIS.  He also has a series of books that are a reflection of his Priesthood on his fiftieth anniversary entitled "Gift and Mystery" and "Crossing the Threshold of Hope."   His personal maxim "Courragio" "Be Not Afraid!"  Gave me the courage to answer the call to the priesthood.

The next pope I would be introduced to in the Seminary was John XXIII.  While taking Fr. Tifft's Church History Class we had to choose one event or church figure and read 500 pages and write a 15 page paper.  Fr. Bob Stec told me I should look at John XXIII.  I wasn't sure who he meant but when I came across a book which referred to him as how many of you knew him "The Good Pope."  I remember going through the seminary library and seeing that book, picking it up, reading a few paragraphs and falling in love with him instantly.

J. D. Salinger once said:

"What I like best is a book that's at least funny once in a while...
What really knocks me out is a book that,
when you're all done reading it,
you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours
and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.
That doesn't happen much, though."

...but it does!  I found this to be true when I read John XXIII's Journal of a Soul.  I felt like after reading that and a number of biographies my favorite by Thomas Cahill.  I found that I had this "Good Pope", this father figure, that I could relate to.  As I read his journal all the way from his time of growing up, to the seminary, to the priesthood... I was edified by his spiritual life and the kind and caring man that he was.  I wanted to be like him.  What I've found is that through the communion of saints (and now that he is one!), unlike J. D. Salinger's quote ending... it does happen much!  John XXIII has become one of my nearest and dearest friends, a father figure to me, a brother priest, a bishop, and the "Good Pope".

Saint John XXIII helped me see that one of the most important things of being a priest is to be a joyful one.  He had an inscription that he put above his wall in his study... As a youth he greatly admired his parish priest.  On his wall in his study was a maxim that read "“Peace within the cell; fierce warfare without. Hear all; believe a few; honor all. Do not believe everything you hear; do not judge everything you see; do not do everything you can; do not give everything you have; do not say everything you know. Pray, read, withdraw, be silent, be at peace.”  John XXIII took this to heart and entered it into his journal.  I have a painting that I made while I was in the seminary with the script "Pray, read, withdraw, be silent, be at peace."  It hangs to this day in my sitting room at the rectory reminding me of the importance of solitude.  You can read my Church History Paper on John XXIII.  

Pope Benedict has also been influential on me.  As Cardinal Ratzinger he was kind of known as being the Church's "Pit-bull" as the defender of the faith.  When he became pope I found him to be such a kind and gentle man.  What really reveals this is his writing.  I think that the greatest gift that he will leave us are the Trilogy that he wrote: "Jesus of Nazareth".  These are absolutely profound and beautiful writings that showed me the importance of experiencing the Person of Jesus.

After I was newly ordained I was able to make a trip to Rome with some priest friends, family, and seminarians.  Two of my favorite memories were both in the Vatican.  The first was actually getting to celebrate mass on the Altar of John XXIII where his body lies in the glass casket.  I felt like I was finally able to meet him and be with him especially as I celebrated the Eucharist and received the Body of Christ.  The Second memory was the last day of the trip.  We took the scavi tour and at the end of the tour Fr. Ireland had arranged for me to say mass in the Clementine Chapel.  This is a tiny golden chapel just below the altar in the vatican.  You can see down if you look through the grate in the vatican.  Below this altar are the bones of St. Peter.  It was amazing to be newly ordained and saying mass at the very place where Peter's bones are buried.  After mass because we were already in the crypt I was able to walk directly to the place where John Paul II was buried (this was also the place John XXIII was buried before he became as Saint and was moved up into the Basilica in the glass casket.)  I vividly remember walking over to John Paul's tomb and kneeling down and thanking him for helping me to the priesthood and forming me into the priest that I am today.


Click here to view the official program which has wonderful pictures, biographies and all of the prayers from the Mass Rite of Canonization.

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Listen to my homily here: 

Here are some of the official videos:

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