I Walked with the Saints

Columban Fr. Shay Cullen
May 1, 2014

Now that Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII have been canonized Saints, I suppose I can now say that I walked with a saint, I talked with a saint and I photographed a saint, just as thousands have done during his many travels and his public appearances.

It is a beautiful thing that both were declared Saints together. Saints are not expected to be perfect. We can be saints too by living out the gospel message in all its simplicity as best we can.

We don’t have to have heroic virtue, just live so we can reach out and help others in need and share what we can with those who have less, to love like the Good Samaritan without seeking any reward. We can be undeclared saints especially by helping the orphans, widows, victims of abuse and exploitation, the poor and the oppressed and to do our best to make this a more just and loving world where human rights and the dignity of every person is respected and cherished.

The canonization of two Popes at the same time by two living Popes is a first in the history of the church. Traditions are changing quickly and Pope Francis is doing this to unite the traditional conservative Catholics who hailed Pope John Paul II as their champion of conservative teaching and practice. He was a charismatic leader but he put the brakes on the reforms of Pope John XXIII who convened the first Ecumenical Council and brought wide-reaching reforms into the church that not all could easily accept.

Pope John XXIII through the Ecumenical Council in 1962 brought the church into the modern world and enabled it to share the gospel message and values to the world in way that challenges the forces of evil and frees the human spirit to act for justice and have a sense of community with all people. Both tried to do that in their own way. Pope Francis will try to do it his way respecting the best of the previous Popes.

It was in 1981 when Pope John Paul II came to the Philippines, and I was assigned to photograph and write about his visit. He had a hectic schedule. I made travel arrangements to be in the places where he would be.

Saint Pope John Paul II from Poland was not adverse to positive political outcomes of strong solidarity by the Catholics of Poland. He supported those that were organizing trade unions and staging non-violent demonstrations for freedoms and human rights in Poland. After all, the social teachings of the church were already strongly established in Papal teachings. Solidarity eventually won elections and soon the communist state collapsed. Many hoped he would speak for the poor in the Philippines.

In the Philippines, the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda held sway over a brutal regime that oppressed the poor and the church and plundered the public treasury at will. Yet Marcos was claiming he was a democratically elected official but the cemeteries were overflowing with victims of his death squads.

It was a stifling hot February day, 1981, in a slum area of Manila when I stood side by side with Saint Pope John Paul II.  A small stage had been set up on the side of the road and roped off. I took a taxi and walked the rest of the way. My press card got me through security. The people had gathered and strangely there were no politicians, bishop or priests or an official delegation waiting to greet the Pope. The media had not arrived either.

I stood around alone by the little stage and after a while, some vehicles came through the crowds. The vehicles stopped and out stepped Pope John Paul II, and he was escorted by his security people to the small stage. The bishop, press, officials were nowhere to be seen. Apparently there was a huge traffic jam nearby.

It was an amazing scene. He was dressed in a simple white cassock and skull cap and only a few of his staff were there, gone were all the glitter pomp and ceremony of Rome. He stood alone calmly with a smile and gave a light wave to the clapping crowd. Nothing seemed to perturb him. I stood within three meters and greeted him with “welcome your holiness.”  I didn’t know what else to say. He just smiled and nodded. I was perplexed standing around with a Pope almost alone inside the roped enclosure.

I was perplexed standing beside him waiting. I forgot to take lots of photographs after about eight minutes, with sirens wailing, the vehicles arrived through the crowd and a horde of church and civic officials rushed to the stage and got on with the official welcome. John Paul gave a speech that applied the beatitudes to the people of Tondo, “Blessed are the Poor,” he said, and he encouraged them to pursue the social teachings of the church. It was a warning to the rich cronies of Marcos to respect the dignity of God’s children. Children brought flowers, then they all boarded the cars and drove away in a convoy.

It was not the first time I had met and walked with living saints. Those who have dedicated their lives to the unselfish service of the sick and helpless, those risking their lives defending human rights and the poor, those dying in the struggle for justice and the rights of the oppressed are martyrs and saints and I walked and worked with many of them. They live heroic lives of virtue and self-sacrifice, they will stand proudly with the two Popes in God’s kingdom.