I never considered myself a saint growing up in Southie, but neither did I ever expect to ever get to know two people who are saints.
A few days ago in Rome, one of those people I worked with, often talked to, and traveled with, Pope John Paul II, took a huge step towards formally becoming a saint.
The other saint I worked with over the years was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. We built housing together in Boston for unwed mothers and homeless families. I worked in her soup kitchen in Rome and visited with her in her home for the dying in Calcutta. Two very special friends of Boston and the people of the United States.
I was with the future pope when he first came to Boston in 1969, and at the Vatican on April 2, 2006 when he died.
I was born in the Polish section of South Boston and trying to become that area’s state representative at the time of his first visit. I was introduced to him by a neighbor I once sold newspapers to, Richard Cardinal Cushing. A pretty good tipper as I recall.
I would have many opportunities to see first hand both the brilliance and kindness of Pope John Paul II, a remarkable man, a man who influenced my life more than anyone could ever imagine.
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His greatness was in his spirituality, humbleness and compassion. His understanding and gentle smile made him a person you wanted to be in the presence of.
John Paul inspired the people of Poland to stand up to the ruthless and godless Soviet Empire in 1978 when he said, “be not afraid.”
Lech Walesa, standing on a flatbed truck, wearing a badge with Our Lady of Czestochowa, Pope John Paul II’s picture, and the word “Solidarity” under it, told thousands of striking union shipyard workers in Gdansk, that “the Pope has given us the courage to stand up to any force to defend our God-given human rights.”
I was standing right next to him on that truck.
The Polish-born pope’s words inspired Walesa, the nation, and millions throughout the world. Strikes, protests and demonstrations of any kind were punishable by prison in Communist Poland at the time.
Sitting next to him on a return flight to Rome, I told the pope that my family and so many others in Boston would say the Rosary every night to Our Lady of Fatima for the “conversion of Russia.”
Here I was, talking with the person who was responsible for making all that happen. Pope John Paul II looked at me and said, “God answered your parents’ prayers.”
The largest number of Americans ever gathered in St. Peter’s Square were there for the historic event of John Paul’s beatification, thousands of them from Massachusetts. Pope John Paul II made millions of people proud to be Catholic, so this was a very special day.
I am grateful to know that two of the most remarkable people in modern history were people I not only knew, but people I loved and admired.
I wasn’t in St. Peter’s Square this time, but at Our Lady of Czestochowa Church in South Boston where the church hall was recently dedicated in John Paul’s memory and where I rejoiced with so many others that night back in 1978 when Karol Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II.
Ray Flynn is former U.S. Ambassador to The Vatican, mayor of Boston, and best selling author of “John Paul II, A Personal Portrait of the Pope and The Man,” and “The Accidental Pope.”