By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The news of Pope John Paul II’s upcoming beatification was welcomed by many as a confirmation of something they already felt from the moment the shouts of “Santo subito!” (“Sainthood now!”) reverberated through St. Peter’s Square at the pontiff’s funeral.

Many in the crowd were young people who had a special affinity to Pope John Paul, whose pontificate started and ended with a special greeting to young people. During his installation ceremony in 1978, the newly named pope told youths: “You are the future of the world, you are the hope of the Church, you are my hope.”

And his last words, reportedly delivered hours before his death, were also to youths, in response to the thousands of young people praying and singing in St. Peter’s Square.

“I sought you and now you have come to me. … I thank you,” said the pontiff, who died April 2, 2005 at age 84. {{more}}

Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, founder and CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Television, said it was no coincidence that he heard the news of the pontiff’s beatification while attending a meeting in Spain for the upcoming World Youth Day.

“A thunderous, sustained, standing ovation followed the announcement,” he said in a Jan. 14 statement.

The priest, national director for World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, said the date for the beatification, May 1, is also no coincidence. Not only is it spanine Mercy Sunday, but it is also the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, known as “May Day” on secular calendars.

“Communists and socialists around the world commemorate May Day with marches, speeches and festivals,” he said, adding that it was fitting that “the man who was a unique instrument and messenger in bringing down the Iron Curtain and the deadly reign of communism and godlessness will be declared blessed” that day.

Father Rosica said the announcement is “the formal confirmation of what many of us always knew as we experienced the Holy Father in action throughout his pontificate” particularly among youths, noting that one of the pope’s gifts to the Church was his establishment of World Youth Day.

Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr of Cincinnati said that as national executive director of World Youth Day 1993, which was in Denver, and later as general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference in Washington, he had “the opportunity to get to know Pope John Paul II from many vantage points.”

“His love for God and God’s people was evident in every aspect of his life. His confidence in the power of prayer was inspiring, the archbishop said. “His life was completely given over to the will of God. For those who followed his papacy closely, it was never a question of whether he would be beatified but rather when. Santo subito!”

Tim Massie, the chief public affairs officer and adjunct professor of communication and religious studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., called the news of Pope John Paul II’s upcoming beatification a “morale boost” especially for Catholics in the United States “where sex abuse scandals, financial crises and disagreements with Church hierarchy have dramatically affected parishes, dioceses and the faithful in the pews.”

Because of the pope’s extensive travels in the United States, he said, “there are literally millions of people who were touched by his charisma and holiness.” The pope visited the United States seven times and in each visit urged Catholics to use their freedom responsibly and to preserve the sacredness and value of human life.

In an e-mail to Catholic News Service, Massie said the “general public already considers John Paul II a saint and those who saw him, listened to him, prayed with him, already believed they met a saint – not a future saint, but someone who, like Mother Teresa, lived out the Gospel message in his everyday life.”

Michele Dillon, who chairs the department of sociology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, said she believes most American Catholics will welcome John Paul II’s beatification.

She described him as the “first cosmopolitan pope for a cosmopolitan age, and his warm, energetic, and telegenic personality served him well on his many trips to all parts of the globe.”

Dillon remarked that it would “be interesting to see whether his beatification, at this time of uncertain commitment among the faithful, will reignite a new spark of church engagement especially among the generation who as teenagers turned out in force” for World Youth Day events.

Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said in a statement the news of the late pope’s beatification “brings joy to the whole Church” and added, “All of us have our own particular fond memories of this great pastor, our beloved father in Christ.”

He said that during Pope John Paul’s visit to the United States, including Detroit in 1987, “he showed us the face of Christ. As we venerate his memory, he still does us that service from the Father’s house in heaven.”

Dennis Doyle, University of Dayton religious studies professor, noted that many U.S. Catholics didn’t understand the pope and wondered how he “could be liberal on social issues but yet so conservative on Church issues. He was consistent in a way that was difficult for some people in the U.S. to understand.”

“But ultimately, he is being beatified because he was loved throughout the world and is recognized iconically as a holy person,” he added.

Tony Melendez, the armless guitarist whose embrace by Pope John Paul electrified an audience during the pope’s 1987 visit to Los Angeles, said he had always considered his encounters with the pontiff “like I got to meet a living saint.”

Melendez, in a phone interview with CNS while en route to his Missouri home, said he got to see Pope John Paul six more times, including a private audience at the Vatican about a year and a half after the 1987 U.S. pastoral visit.

“He remembered me,” Melendez remarked. “And he said, ‘Oh! My friend from Los Angeles!’ without me saying anything. He hugged my head after I was (done) playing a song. … To me, he was a wonderful man who did great things.”

Told of the May 1 beatification date, Melendez said, “If I can be there, I want to go. I’ll make some time to go. He was a living saint, in my heart.”