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Cardinal Francis George honors new saints at special Mass

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Updated: April 27, 2014 11:15PM

The canonization of two popes was cause for celebration, “especially in the Polish community, of course,” Cardinal Francis George said Sunday evening, acknowledging the deep spiritual connection of Chicago’s many Poles to their countryman, Pope John Paul II.

George spoke after celebrating a special Mass at Holy Name Cathedral honoring the man who named him archbishop of Chicago and Pope John XXIII, who also was canonized on Sunday at the Vatican.

But John Paul II was the focus for hundreds in the Polish community who marched across the Northwest Side on Sunday. They relished the rare opportunity to celebrate the canonization of a saint who lived during their lifetime. The honor is normally bestowed upon Catholics generations after their death.

“My parents saw him become pope and now they are seeing him become saint,” said 24-year-old Dariusz Slomiany, whose parents moved to Chicago’s Northwest Side from Poland.

He added: “It’s a huge event — for Polish people especially. John Paul II was a huge individual . . . he helped bring down the [Iron] Curtain.”

Slomiany stood outside St. Hyacinth Basilica as hundreds of marchers waving Polish and Vatican flags streamed into the church at 3636 W. Wolfram St. Polish folk music blasted from loudspeakers mounted on a minivan. Many carried portraits of the new saint, including one man with a gold-framed photo of John Paul II on a golden chain around his neck.

George said he had shared a meal with Pope John Paul II, and he noted that he was a man who didn’t take himself too seriously.

“He would ask questions, and then he would tease you . . . He had a sense of irony about himself. He didn’t take himself seriously, and so he was also able to tease others. But, in that, you relaxed and he found out a lot about the church.”

George also said he was tired and prone to infection by interacting with others while undergoing chemotherapy to fight cancer. Because of his health, doctors advised him not to attend the canonization ceremony at the Vatican.

The elevation of Pope John Paul II — born Karol Josef Wojtyla in 1920, in a small town outside Krakow — to sainthood takes on added significance in Chicago.

Not only does the region boast the largest population of Poles outside of Warsaw, but now-St. John Paul II visited the area multiple times — first as a cardinal and later as pope.

Shortly after he became pontiff in 1978, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at Five Holy Martyrs Parish on the Southwest Side. To celebrate his canonization, the Brighton Park church, at the corner of Pope John Paul II Drive and South Richmond Street, held a vigil just after midnight Saturday.

The early morning event was reminiscent of the pope’s visit in 1979, when families in the then-heavily Polish neighborhood stayed awake overnight in anticipation of morning Mass.

“It was the middle of the night and people were walking around the neighborhood,” Elsa Svenlys recalled. After daybreak, thousands descended on the Brighton Park church, jamming traffic for miles while hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope, parishioners said.

“We sat at the bush across the street. No one moved. We never even got to see him,” Svenlys said of her near-brush with sainthood. Still, she called the experience “deeply, deeply, deeply moving,” and added: “Little did I know that I would be part of history.”

Parishioner Marion Valle said he met then-Cardinal Wojtyla in 1969, when Wojtyla visited Chicago — and the church. Wojtyla, who was staunchly anti-communist, was friendly with several local Catholics, united in opposition to the communist regime gripping Poland at the time, Valle said.

Because Valle was precinct committeeman for the area surrounding the church, he was asked get the streets cleaned before the cardinal arrived. He did more than that. Valle borrowed a limo from a friend and chauffeured Wojtyla’s visit.

“He wanted to see the poor people of Chicago,” Valle said. “So I skipped the interstate and drove him down Pulaski.

“I don’t know what a saint is supposed to be like, but he was certainly special and made a great impression on me and my family,” Valle said. “The last thing he asked me was ‘How is my English?’ ”

Across an ocean and several time zones, Pope Francis on Sunday declared Popes John XXIII and John Paul II saints before an estimated 800,000 people at St. Peter’s Square.

Contributing: Mitch Dudek


Twitter: @brianslodysko

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