Historic Celebration -- In the presence of hundreds of parishioners from St. Robert Bellarmine Parish and throughout the diocese, Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., celebrated a Mass to commemorate the canonization of Blessed John XXIII April 26 in St. Robert Bellarmine Chruch, Freehold. Another Mass will be celebrated in commemoration of Blessed John Paul II's canonization April 27 at 11 a.m. in St. Hedwig Church, Trenton. John Batkowski photos
Historic Celebration -- In the presence of hundreds of parishioners from St. Robert Bellarmine Parish and throughout the diocese, Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., celebrated a Mass to commemorate the canonization of Blessed John XXIII April 26 in St. Robert Bellarmine Chruch, Freehold. Another Mass will be celebrated in commemoration of Blessed John Paul II's canonization April 27 at 11 a.m. in St. Hedwig Church, Trenton. John Batkowski photos
Prayerful expectation filled St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Freehold April 26 as nearly 1,000 congregants gathered for the Diocese’s celebration of the canonization of Blessed John XXIII, which was set to take place in Rome the next day.  The quiet excitement was a harbinger of the unbridled joy that was to unfold in St. Peter’s Square and indeed around the world  April 27 when Pope Francis elevated his two predecessors – John XXII and John Paul II – to sainthood.

In the wide expanse of the sanctuary – adorned in its Easter Best – a portrait of the soon-to-be saint they had come to honor – captivated all eyes – especially those of children –  as generations buzzed around the picture of the paternal and warmly smiling saint-to-be.

Soaring hymns and the rich perfume of thousands of Easter blossoms lifted their senses as they waited.

In one of the pews, Barbara Nowak, a founding member of the parish, noted that St. Robert Bellarmine was established in 1971 on the cusp of Vatican II. She smiled as she watched the throng grow larger, minute-by-minute.

The calling of the Second Vatican Council had signaled what would be a monumental change in her life, she said even if she didn’t have the time to fully recognize it in her younger days as she and her late husband Rodney, were raising their seven children.

She recalled attending church before the council. “You partook but you didn’t understand,” Nowak said. “The council made the Church more a part of everyday life. It made the Church a real force in life,” and, she said, “it made you feel more comfortable.”

Using a phrase that would echo over and over again during the next two hours, Nowak described having the Mass of Thanksgiving in her church “real honor” and like many, spoke of how thrilled she was with the timing. Having the canonization of Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday was wonderful, she said.

In his homily, Bishop O’Connell reflected on both saintly men, whom, he said captured the “world’s attention and imagination” as they offered “examples of what it means to be saints, offering hope to us all.”

He noted that mercy was a theme for the ministry in the Church of both John Paul II and John XXIII and spoke of how “St. John XXIII, the pope who convened the Second Vatican Council, proclaimed that the Catholic Church ‘desires to show herself to be a loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness …  (that she) prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than of severity.”

In the homily, Bishop O’Connell called attention to the well known fact that St. John XXIII – with the help of the Holy Spirit – confounded the pundits and prelates who presumed his papacy would be a brief caretaker term.

“’Good Pope John’ as he was called, at 77 was already an old man when he was chosen pope. Kind and grandfatherly, his brief, four-year term that ended more than 50 years ago changed the Catholic Church in ways that are still unfolding.

“He was a bishop’s secretary, a life-long Church diplomat and finally a cardinal archbishop in Venice whom no one expected to do much as pope,” said the Bishop. “How wrong such lack of expectation was, as history has made clear.”

“His message was simple and humble: ‘Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in but what is still possible for you to do.”

Joseph Lauro and Dorothy Avallone, also founding members of the parish, would be among those bringing up the gifts to Bishop O'Connell. Long time family friends, Lauro and Avallone said they were very moved to have a part in the Mass of Thanksgiving for St. John XXIII.

"It's a real honor to participate," said Lauro as he and Avallone settled on chairs in the comfortable gathering space before the Mass. "It's an absolute honor," she echoed.

Both fondly recalled serving on the original parish council back when their young families were growing up. They expressed devotion for the pope who was ushered to the chair of St. Peter with very little expectation and, as she put it, surprised everyone by calling the council. People shouldn't have been so surprised,she said and then spun out a list of his accomplishments before ascending to the papacy.

"He was a gifted, lifelong diplomat and he saved thousands of Jewish people from the concentration camps in that capacity," she said. "He was a teacher, he published a newspaper before becoming pope. He had many gifts."

Lauro said that what impressed him as a practicing Catholic is that both St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II were held in high esteem "even by non-Catholics around the world. They were well regarded and loved," he said.

Jeannie McElwee and her mother, Margaret (Peg) have a special devotion to St. John XXIII and they traveled from Corpus Christi Parish, Willingboro, to attend the Mass. "He was so humble," said Jeannie, "so able to hear the voice of God."

The changes he helped bring about had a profound effect on her life, she said.

"Hearing Mass in English made he start loving going to Church," she said as the Mass concluded. "This was a beautiful Mass and we're very glad we came to honor his relationship with God."

Among those who raised their voice in song during the Mass were a host of children, some of whom bubbled over with delight at being able to sing in honor of not one but two papal saints.

Nancy and Michael Kolodchak's 8-year-old triplet daughters signaled their enthusiasm after the Mass. They said they enjoyed visiting the flower decked portrait of St. John XXIII that graced the nave near the altar.

Msgr. Sam Sirianni, pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, said the pope’s good counsel  in so many ways – especially calling the Second Vatican Council – have been building blocks for his own ministry.

“I was four years old when he called the council,” said Msgr. Sirianni, director of the Diocesan Office of Worship. He referred to himself as “a child of the council,” and said it had a “profound impact on my life and faith. It created in me a deep appreciation of the mystery of the Church.”

Noting that he was ordained for the priesthood under St. John Paul II, he says both men inspired him greatly. “They told us to go out from the sanctuaries and into the world – to bring Christ to the world.”