If Pope John Paul II would become a saint?
It was only a matter of when.
“Some people wanted it to happen right away,” said Gamber, a theology teacher and guidance counselor at Jesuit High School in Tampa. “And that's no surprise. He was a rock star to so many in our generation.”
Today, “Divine Sunday,” Pope Francis will canonize not one, but two popes — John Paul II and John XXIII — at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.
The rare dual ceremony is expected to draw as many as 3 million pilgrims, from heads of state to a band of Polish horseback riders making the 2,000-mile trek in medieval costumes.
The Rev. George Iregi, associate pastor at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa, is also among the celebrants witnessing the Mass firsthand.
A native of Africa, Iregi remembers the three times Pope John Paul II came to Kenya, bringing his message of peace and reconciliation at a time when the region was struggling to establish a democracy.
With each visit, the pope inspired “excitement and a renewal of faith.”
“With his simple and humorous approach to the challenges he faced, it never made him lose the dignity of being a shepherd who understands how the flock he leads feels,” Iregi said. “This makes me realize that in as much as I like to connect with the people I serve, the priority is in how they feel toward the direction the church gives to them.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Today's historic canonization is not without controversy.
Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who unexpectedly stepped down last year, waived the normal five-year waiting period for canonization and allowed the steps to document the life and virtues of John Paul II to begin just one month after his death in April 2005.
Some observers say Francis' decision to canonize both popes at the same time reflects the tone he is trying to set in his papacy: to unify and reconcile the faithful of the 1 billion-member church.
Progressive and traditional Catholics differ on the merits of the two popes and what they accomplished.
For example, detractors are denouncing John Paul II for his role in presiding over the clergy sex-abuse scandal and cover-up and his unwillingness to hold bishops and priests accountable for their crimes.
Gamber, who worked in Rome for the English-language station of Vatican Radio in 2009 and 2010, isn't getting caught up in the debate.
For him, it's personal. He credits John Paul II, who reigned for nearly 27 years, for inspiring his vocation to be a priest.
“My first image of him was a strong young man skiing on a mountain,” Gamber said. “He was someone I could relate to. His life story was something I could admire.”
In recognition of today's rite, Gamber gave his 85 theology students homework: write an essay detailing a contribution or an event connected to John Paul II and the impact it had on the church.
Early this morning, students at Saint Leo University in St. Leo were scheduled to hold a “watch party” of the Mass at St. Peter's.
He's been captivated by Pope John XXIII's legacy since he wrote a 20-page paper on the spiritual leader his sophomore year.
Its sweeping reforms replaced the Latin Mass with vernacular language, reviewed doctrine, encouraged lay involvement and initiated a more ecumenical agenda.
“He gave so much of himself to change the church in such a dramatic way,” Gaspar said. “When I heard he was going to be a saint, it almost blew my mind. No one is more deserving of this.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Michael Anthony Novak, assistant professor of theology at Saint Leo, says the two popes are “arguably the most notable leaders of the Church in the 20th century.”
In particular, he highly recommends that everyone, Catholic or not, read a biography of John Paul, who left behind a career as a writer and actor to follow a religious calling and eventually played a pivotal role in bringing down Communism.
Novak notes that canonization is not a given for a pope; less than one-third of the church's spiritual leaders have become saints. Some have more obvious spiritual gifts, he said, while others have risen to the office for talents that were more political or administrative.
And then there were popes of the Italian Renaissance who were “notoriously corrupt,” Novak said.
“We really would not expect all the popes to be equally models of holiness,” he said.
Today's celebration — Novak compares it to a coronation of a king or queen — is an affirmation of the “church we have become through their leadership,” Novak said.
Gail Whiting, a longtime parishioner at Christ the King, has never felt so personally connected to a saint before.
These aren't people from the Middle Ages whose stories are told in church history books; these are two modern men whose lives unfolded during her lifetime.
“I feel very blessed that something so monumental is taking place here,” she said. “Our church is different because of them. And now we are recognizing them for what they have given us.”