Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., presides at a Mass in St. Hedwig Church, Trenton, April 27 to commemorate the canonization of St. John Paul II. John Batkowski photo
Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., presides at a Mass in St. Hedwig Church, Trenton, April 27 to commemorate the canonization of St. John Paul II. John Batkowski photo

By Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor

On a day filled with great joy, splendor and gratitude to God, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., joined the community of St. Hedwig Parish, Trenton, April 27 to commemorate the canonization St. John Paul II.

In the presence of Father Jacek Labinski, pastor, other priests and hundreds of parishioners, most of whom are Polish immigrants or are Polish-American, Bishop O’Connell celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving for the canonization of the Catholic Church’s only known Polish pope to date.

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’s background, pontificate, beatification and canonization.

After citing the “special blessing and grace” it was for the world to witness the canonizations of two popes on the same day, Bishop O’Connell focused attention on how St. John Paul II was inspired to establish Divine Mercy in 2000. Divine Mercy Sunday is the culmination to the Divine Mercy of Jesus, a devotion given to St. Faustina Kowalska, and is based upon an entry in her diary stating that anyone who participates in the Mass and receives the Sacrament 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 a saint in 2000 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.

 “This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity,” the Bishop said, quoting from Pope John Paul II’s homily on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 22, 2001.

“…Easter, new life in the Risen Christ, is the gift of God’s mercy and it is the gift of God’s mercy that, in turn, gives us hope. St. John Paul the Great knew that well as he prepared remarks for Divine Mercy Sunday on April 3, 2005,” said Bishop O’Connell, noting that the Holy Father died the day before the designated celebration, never having the opportunity to give the address he had written.

The liturgy in St. Hedwig Church was enhanced by the presence of the Knights of Columbus, and the participation of youngsters, dressed in native polish attire, who joined in the entrance procession. The music for the celebration included a blend of Easter hymns as well as other Polish/English selections.

Gracing the side of the sanctuary was a handsome portrait of newly canonized St. John Paul II, and placed on the altar were two reliquaries, one of St. Faustina Kowalska and the other that contained drop of St. John Paul II’s blood. Father Labinski was given the relic of then Blessed John Paul II’s blood by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow, Poland in April, 2013. During the recessional at the end of the Mass, Bishop O’Connell carried the St. John Paul II reliquary and blessed the congregation as he processed down the center aisle.

Recounting highlights of Pope John Paul II’s life, Bishop O’Connell noted how he was only 58 years old when he was chosen to be a pope. He spoke of how the Holy Father had an intense and philosophical nature and how “he too changed the Catholic Church in our day in ways that are still unfolding.”

“He was a parish priest, a professor, a bishop, a cardinal archbishop in Krakow, Poland, whom people looked to with great expectation,” he said. “His message was profound and compelling: ‘Do not be afraid. Do not be satisfied with the mediocrity. Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’”

Bishop O’Connell fondly recalled having met John Paul II on two occasions. The first time, was during the Holy Father’s visit to Philadelphia in 1979. Bishop O’Connell, at the time, was a seminarian preparing for the priesthood. The second time occurred during the last year of the Holy Father’s public appearances before he died in 2005. At the time, then-Father O’Connell was president of The Catholic University of America, Washington.

For folks around the diocese and beyond, especially those of Polish heritage, the significance of John Paul Il’s canonization held heartfelt meaning. While there were many expressions of joy in knowing that he is now a saint, others noted how the canonization 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 presence in World Youth Day events.

Recalling when the Holy Father died in 2005 and the outcry from throughout the world that he immediately be canonized a saint, Father Labinski said, “This is the day that the Lord has made. It is a day we have prayed for, for a very long time.”

St. Hedwig parishioner S. Paul Bosse shared how his affiliation with area Polish organizations led him to either meet or encounter the now canonized saint on several occasions including when then-Cardinal Wojtyla made a stop in Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine in Doylestown, Pa., as part of his visit to Philadelphia for the Eucharistic Congress in 1976.  Bosse also saw John Paul II during his 1979 papal visit to Philadelphia as well as during two visits to Rome in 1983 and again in the early 1990s.

 “It’s coming full circle,” said Bosse, reflecting on John Paul II’s canonization. “He is a saint from our lifetime. We knew him as a living being and now we’re seeing him in his glorious death and today he has been made a saint which he deserved.”

Parishioner Mary Gorecki also recalled encountering Cardinal Wojtyla in Doylestown in 1976 and then meeting him in Rome in 1983.

“I pray to him every day,” she said.

Expressing how thrilled she was that Pope John Paul II is now St. John Paul II, Elizabeth Szwed said, “I always knew he was special…He set a great example that people could follow.”

Dorota Czynienik recalled how “very close” John Paul II allowed himself to become to the people.

“He had a gentle heart,” she said, then added how proud she is that “someone from Poland” had attained sainthood.

Theresa Sirawosky of  St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, recalled participating in a parish choir pilgrimage in Rome some 15 years ago. She noted that at the time, Father Labinski was parochial vicar of the parish and had accompanied the choir on the pilgrimage.

The choir, Sirawosky said, sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth” for the pope during a general audience. The choir had finished singing as the pope walked up the aisle. When he passed by, Sirawosky remembered being in a position where she was able to say “ojciec” (which means “father” in Polish) loud enough for him to hear. “He turned and shook my hand,” she said. With that, Sirawosky said the pope continued to walk and reached a point where Father Labinski was able to say, “swiety ojciec” (which means holy father in Polish). The pope reached out to shake Father Labinski’s hands.

“I’ll never forget that,” Sirawoski said. “I was touched by a future saint!”

Alexandra Barylka smiled as she reflected on John Paul II’s command to the world, “Do Not Be Afraid.”

“In looking at his life, he grew up in a troubled country during the war” and he experienced other hardships during his life, she said. “But he didn’t give up; he gave people hope and encouraged them not to be afraid, to move forward and to always believe and pray.”

Reflecting on how John Paul II was the pope that “I grew up with and now I’m witnessing the day when he became a saint,” Barylka smiled and said, “I have never been more proud to call myself Polish and Catholic.”