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, smartphones 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.”
People like these are needed now more than ever, and their example should be a light in a time of abuse scandals, increasing attacks on religious liberties and the spread of a crass, sterile culture that denigrates the dignity of life.
“We see evil is trying to find his way among us, but it can’t turn us blind before the goodness, and we need to fight to keep this flame in our hearts,” Father Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit missionary, wrote just before he was murdered last month in Syria. “We feel like we are in the valley of the shadows, but we can see that light far away, leading us to life again.”
Here in the West, most of us only ever have to show up in church now and again and pray — not even on cobblestones — or vote with the common good and our conscience in mind. And we don’t always.
At the moment, prayer is just for Sunday, emergencies or special occasions, even as secular culture militates more and more against religious virtue. This has been our course over recent decades. But it’s not enough.
It’s not living the radical Gospel Christ taught. God’s faithful people, inspired by a saint who stood up to the Soviet Union and seemed to have no fear, can turn this around. The flame in their hearts — if even but a glimmer in darkness — demands it and may yet serve as a beacon for others.