On the eve of sainthood, a look at the influence of Pope John Paul II

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz
Deacon Greg Gitschier
Deacon Greg Gitschier
Pope John Paul II ((Source: Deacon Greg Gitschier)
Pope John Paul II ((Source: Deacon Greg Gitschier)
Deacon Gitschier kissing the papal ring of Pope John Paul II (Source: Deacon Greg Gitschier)
Deacon Gitschier kissing the papal ring of Pope John Paul II (Source: Deacon Greg Gitschier)

By Bill Menish - email 
Posted by Charles Gazaway - email

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – On Sunday, May 1, the beatification of Pope John Paul II will take place at the Vatican. Just six years after his death, the beloved pontiff is already at the second of three stages before being canonized. This rapid progression to sainthood says something about the man and his impact on the world, an impact that continues still today.

"A saint is meant to be a true model for others to emulate, imitate, and be inspired," said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Just over six years after the death of Pope John Paul II, the late Holy Father is on his way toward sainthood with his beatification ceremony this Sunday.

"There was almost an instinctive call for his sainthood at the time of his funeral," said Kurtz.

That's because of both who he was and how he touched the masses.

"He may have had direct contact with more human beings than anyone in the history of humanity," Kurtz said.

During his pontificate, John Paul II logged more than three quarters of a million miles in his 26 years as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Considered by many as one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century, John Paul II often influenced more than just the Catholic community.

"I've had three chances to meet and speak with him personally," said Kurtz loves to tell the story of his first meeting with John Paul II, one that was with his brother who has Down syndrome. Because of that, the two were given seats up front.

"So for the next 15 years, he kept reminding me that he was the one that got the good tickets to see our Holy Father."

Most of us remember John Paul II and the Popemobile that was created for him. Many also remember the celebration of Mass in huge stadiums, like the one he celebrated during his visit to St. Louis in 1999.

"Why I was put in that position, I will never know," said Greg Gitschier, "but it will definitely change my life."

During the St. Louis visit, Gitschier was the man seen at the rear of the Popemobile. He was a U.S. Secret Service agent assigned to protect the Pope and was also the only Catholic on the detail.

Gitschier says he was a "cruise control Catholic" and was going to church. But he said it wasn't the Pope himself at first that redirected him, it was the people.

"Just to be in his presence and people holding their babies over the rail just to be close to the Popemobile and parents with tears running down their eyes, that's faith," Gitschier said. "I mean, that's a powerful faith."

So when it was time to say goodbye to the Pope, the tough guy Secret Service agent did the unthinkable - he knelt and he kissed the papal ring.

"I'm glad I did it," said Gitschier. "I'd never change a thing."

But he did change. After retiring from the Secret Service, Gitschier went to back to school and became an ordained deacon. It's a change that he says begin with John Paul II.

"I would say he had a great potential for touching the hearts of people," said Kurtz.

That influence on the young continues today at John Paul II Academy. Students at the school have been celebrating the beatification of their namesake since it was announced in January.

The process of canonization or sainthood is a rigid path requiring many steps, including at least two miracles. The first miracle confirmed by theologians is that the neurological disorder of a French nun had been miraculously cured after she prayed to John Paul II in 2005.

Another miracle, much study and several steps will be taken over an unknown period of time before he is canonized or becomes St. John Paul.

Copyright 2011 WAVE News. All rights reserved.