Rome -- "When did you first know he was a saint?" It's a question Joaquin Navarro-Valls gets often and especially now, in the days surrounding the canonization of his former boss, now St. John Paul II. Navarro-Valls served as press director for the Holy See during JPII's pontificate, and speaking to Catholic communicators at a conference at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross here, he remembers "the first time I saw him pray."
"A person who prayed the way he did could not not be a saint," Navarro-Valls recalls. He was "deeply bound to God." He "didn't move, he didn't flinch" when in prayer. "Praying was a like breathing for him," Navarro-Valls adds. He remembers how JPII would stop into his chapel before and after dinner. On one particular night, he got so immersed in prayer that his typical two-minute visit became a much longer one, for which he later apologized to Navarro-Valls, who was in the chapel with the pope. Navarro-Valls explains: "He had taken off. He was talking to someone else." Any picture of him praying, Navarro-Valls said, "was the most eloquent expression of his inner soul."
On April 30, I attended my first papal audience since Pope Francis was elected. People had begun lining up before dawn to get a good spot, the most coveted being at the front of a barricade. There was a little something untoward about the whole thing -- when the pope showed up, smart phones were raised as far as the eye could see.
But looking around, even in the crowds, even with the occasional push to the front of the crowd, there was a man thoroughly undistracted, sitting on the ground praying the Rosary. There was a couple with a newborn baby, here to pray with the Holy Father. There were the nuns, who knew the real star of the show is the savior of the world, not a pope who has become a celebrity, having for now met the favor of much of the media.
For the people I walked with the night before the canonization Mass, Jesus Christ is a guiding light in the world, their joy and hope. They lined the Via della Conciliazione, where they would stay until morning, in the hopes of making it into the square to pray with the pope. Theirs is a world of sure faith, profound witness and unfailing service.
"Every time he speaks," Austen Ivereigh, who is writing a book on Pope Francis, said during the same conference at which Navarro-Valls spoke, "the Pope is making a connection with a body of people, hidden from the media, unnoticed by politics, who preserve the faithful culture."