Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., presides at a Mass in St. Hedwig Church, Trenton, May 1 to commemorate the beatification of Pope John Paul II.John Batkowski photo
Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., presides at a Mass in St. Hedwig Church, Trenton, May 1 to commemorate the beatification of Pope John Paul II.
John Batkowski photo

Proudly showing the button that was pinned to her lapel of Pope John Paul II and the Divine Mercy, Helen Szczubetek could not contain her enthusiasm that Pope John Paul II is now Blessed John Paul II. 

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” said an exuberant Szczubetek, as she stood with friend and fellow parishioner, Henry Waszczuk, on the steps of St. Hedwig Church, Trenton, May 1.They had just come from a Mass that Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., had celebrated as part of a diocesan commemoration in honor of the late Holy Father’s beatification by Pope Benedict XVI.

The Mass, which was concelebrated in English and Polish by Bishop O’Connell, Father Jacek Labinski, pastor of St. Hedwig, and several priests who are of Polish extraction: Msgr. Casimir H. Ladzinski, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Bay Head; Father Leszek Tymoszuk, an adjunct priest assigned to Visitation Parish, Brick, and Father Edward Kwoka, parochial vicar of Divine Mercy Parish, Trenton, drew a throng of parishioners of all ages, as well as visitors who had made a special trip to Trenton just for the occasion.

Click HERE for a gallery of photos from this Mass.

The liturgy was enhanced by the presence of the Knights of Columbus and the participation of several youngsters, dressed in native Polish attire, during the Offertory procession. The choice of music featured an appropriate blend of well-known Easter hymns, as well as other Polish/English selections.

Gracing the side of the sanctuary was a handsome portrait of Pope John Paul II, which was placed next to an Easter display of an empty tomb that was elegantly adorned with lilies, greens and other florals. In back of the tomb stood three crosses, with the middle cross being the tallest and draped with a white cloth.

After the Mass, the celebration of John Paul’s II beatification continued when a contingent of St. Hedwig parishioners took part in a three-mile, on-foot procession to Holy Cross Church, which is a worship site of Divine Mercy Parish, Trenton, and is also another faith community in the diocese with a significant Polish population. Upon arriving at Holy Cross, all joined in an outdoor prayer service that was held before the bronze statue of John Paul II that’s located in front of the church.  The gathering then headed inside to participate in Forty Hours Devotional Services.

Day of Special Joy
Bishop O’Connell, in his homily, tied together significant aspects of the day, bringing together the readings proclaimed at Mass, the feast of Divine Mercy Sunday, and highlights of John Paul II background, pontificate and beatification.

“During his almost 27 years as pope,” Karol Josef Wojtyla, who was elected the 264th successor to St. Peter Oct. 16, 1978 at age 58, had canonized 482 saints and beatified 1,338 others, said Bishop O’Connell.

“Today in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI, his successor, added him to their number.”

Bishop O’Connell noted that it was “no small coincidence” that the beatification occurred on Divine Mercy Sunday, which was the feast that John Paul II established in 2000.

Divine Mercy Sunday is the culmination to the Divine Mercy of Jesus, a devotion given to St. Faustina and is based upon an entry in her diary stating that anyone who participates in the Mass and receives the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist on this day is assured by Jesus of full remission of their sins and punishments. The devotion was actively promoted by Pope John Paul II who canonized St. Faustina and designated the second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. The day of John Paul’s death, April, 2, 2005, happened to be the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday that year.

“Today is a day for special joy,” said Bishop O’Connell. “We continue to celebrate Easter; we also celebrate God’s mercy on Divine Mercy Sunday when the Lord Jesus appeared to Sister Faustina Kowalska, who like Blessed John Paul II, was another child of Poland, as the revelation of mercy inviting her and all of us to pray that prayer of faith, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

Bishop O’Connell added that it was the first day of the month of May which that is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “whom Blessed John Paul II loved with the deepest affection.”

It was also the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, husband of the Blessed Mother, foster father of Jesus and patron of the Church,” which is also John Paul II’s middle name, Bishop O’Connell said.

When Blessed John Paul II created the feast of Divine Mercy, said Bishop O’Connell, he saw it as the “fulfillment of the will of Christ.”

When he visited the tomb of St. Faustina in Poland in 1997, he proclaimed “there is nothing more that man needs than Divine Mercy, which raises man above his weakness to the infinite heights of the holiness of God,” said Bishop O’Connell.

“Love and mercy were the reasons for Jesus’ life and mission, for his Death and Resurrection, for his Ascension and abiding presence among us,” said Bishop O’Connell. “Our world often rejects him and his divine mercy because they cannot see. And they cannot see because they do not seek.”

“Jesus never rejects us,” Bishop O’Connell said. “He continues to reach out in love and mercy; to the sinner and the saint; the poor and the rich; the suffering and the healthy; the guilty and the innocent; the born and the unborn; people of every race, tongue and nation and to all who seek him with a sincere heart. To these he extends his divine mercy, all these who have not seen yet believe.”

A People’s Pope
For folks around the diocese and beyond, especially those of Polish heritage, the significance of John Paul II’s beatification held heartfelt meaning. While there were many expressions of joy in knowing that his beatification now means that he has been moved one step closer to possible sainthood, others noted how the beatification served as a reminder of the enormous appeal of the late Holy Father, whose legacy included helping to fell Communism in his native Poland and drawing young people to the Catholic faith through his participation in World Youth Day events.

“We were very proud to have a Polish pope,” said Donna Chmara, a member of Holy Trinity Parish, Helmetta, who came to St. Hedwig with her cousin, Henry Ostapiej, a resident of Silver Spring, Md., and member of St. John the Evangelist Parish there.

“The Polish people are very happy about John Paul II’s beatification,” Chmara said, then recalled when she saw Pope John Paul II in 1979 during his visit to Philadelphia.

“We see it as a very visible sign of our fidelity to the teachings of the Church,” she said.

Brian McCord, a young adult parishioner who is in his late 30s, spoke of how John Paul II was the first pope he ever “really knew” in his lifetime. He said that he considered it a privilege to worship in a Polish parish and live in the north ward section of Trenton with a significant Polish American population.

“It’s been great to share solidarity with them and today we were able to celebrate in a special way here at St. Hedwig’s,” said McCord.

Both McCord and Ostapiej vividly recounted when John Paul II was critically wounded during an assassination attempt and how, after his recovery, he went to the prison to meet and offer forgiveness to his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, a trained sniper from Turkey.

“That demonstrated the power of forgiveness that he taught us,” said McCord.

“For him to sit down with his would-be assailant, and talk with him, that’s unbelievable,” Ostapiej added.

“I wonder how many people told him not to do that,” Ostapiej wondered. “It took an incredible person to do that and that was John Paul II.”

John Bogdan, a parishioner of St. Hedwig since 1948 and a graduate of the parish grammar school, remarked on how “very good it was to have someone that we had actually seen and experienced now on his way to becoming a saint.”

Bogdan fondly recalled the two memorable occasions when he saw John Paul II. The first was Oct. 5, 1995, when the pope celebrated Mass in Giants Stadium during a visit to the United States.

“It poured and I was soaked,” Bogdan said. Then with a smile, he recalled the pope saying: “I brought you rain,” knowing full well that the United States had weathered a summer drought.

The second time Bogdan encountered John Paul II was in St. Peter’s Square in February, 2001. The pope he elevated at that time, Archbishop Edward Egan of New York and Archbishop Zenon Grocholewski to the college of Cardinals.

Archbishop Grocholewski, who now serves as Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education  and Grand Chancellor of the Pontifical Gregorian University, had visited the Diocese of Trenton and St. Hedwig Parish on several occasions.

“He led a life that was so unblemished and he did so much to give people hope,” said Bogdan. “He was a guiding light for people of Poland to obtain their freedom.  I don’t know what would have happened if he wasn’t pope.”

Bogdan’s wife, Julianna Kmiec Bogdan, who is a cousin of Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of Buffalo and a former Trenton Diocesan auxiliary bishop, spoke with warmth about the feeling of peacefulness that the late Holy Father conveyed.

“Today was very emotional,” said Kmiec Bogdan of the Mass of Commemoration. “There is no other pope that I felt an attachment to and it’s not just the nationality; it’s his humanity and absolute caring.”

Then with a chuckle Kmiec Bogdan said that she firmly believed that if John Paul II were still alive, “he would probably be ‘Twittering’ and have a Facebook page too!”

After Father Labinski acknowledged Bishop O’Connell’s willingness to celebrate the commemorative Mass for John Paul II’s beatification in St. Hedwig’s, he told about the portrait of the Holy Father that has been in the church sanctuary ever since his death in April, 2005.

“At his funeral, people were shouting ‘Santo Subito’ which translates to ‘Make him a saint immediately’,” Father Labinski said, and here at St. Hedwig’s, “we have been waiting ever since for that moment. We knew that one day he would become a saint and now he is on his way.”