Alaskans remember with love the newly beatified pope
By PATRICIA COLL FREEMAN
Three years into his pontificate, the successor of Saint Peter – Pope John Paul II – made his way into the crowds gathered at a downtown park, where an estimated 100,000 people cheered as he gave them his blessings. This was not Rome, but Anchorage, Alaska.
The late pope’s February 26, 1981 visit to Anchorage remains the largest ever gathering of people in the state. They traveled by car, train and plane from all corners of the vast state.
Thirty years later, Pope John Paul II continues to leave his mark on Alaska. His name and face are emblazoned on a permanent monument where he celebrated Mass on the Anchorage Park Strip.
And earlier this month, on the day the Catholic Church formally recognized the late pope as a “Servant of God” with heroic virtue who is now one step from sainthood, Alaskans gathered for Sunday Mass at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage and thanked God for the pope’s life and legacy.
Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan even issued a proclamation designating May 1 “A Day to Honor and Celebrate Blessed Pope John Paul II.”
Describing Alaskans’ joy over the pope’s beatification, Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz told the Catholic Anchor, “Here’s someone that we knew and someone who knew us as Alaskans.”
That the pope would “take time out” to visit was “a recognition that there’s something special about this place and this people,” he added.
Indeed, from archbishops to non-Catholics to teens who’ve come of age since the pope’s death in 2005, countless Alaskans have embraced Blessed Pope John Paul II as a model of holiness and charity who changed their world.
Pope John Paul II rides on a dog sled during his visit to Anchorage on Feb. 26, 1981.
‘MODEL OF HOLINESS’
Pope John Paul II is a “model of holiness” who appreciated the importance of each person, said Archbishop Schwietz who came face-to-face many times with the “extraordinary” pope. It was in Pope John Paul II’s pontificate that he was named bishop and then archbishop.
“He was very much a mentor to me,” Archbishop Schwietz explained.
The archbishop first recalls the mystic pope’s piety. “I remember one time when I was with him at Mass sitting next to him, as he was preparing for Mass in prayer, and having that experience of his being so deeply in prayer, that it seemed to me that he was almost in another world.”
And he was as charitable as prayerful, Archbishop Schwietz added.
From his first meeting with the pope, Archbishop Schwietz recalled “how present he was to me, as he was to everybody else.” The pope was “always a patient listener, and with a good sense of humor.”
Now beatified, the pope inspires awe. “Here’s someone I actually shook hands with a number of times and whose blessing I received and whose advice I received,” said Archbishop Schwietz.
FAITH AND FREEDOM
The beatification of the world’s first Polish pope is also a special joy for the Polish people living in Alaska and around the world, explained the Polish-American Archbishop Schwietz.
An estimated 100,000 people attend the Feb. 26, 1981 Mass on the Anchorage Park Strip with Pope John Paul II.
It is a reminder of the pope’s election and “what a huge blessing it was for the people of Poland, in the light of their history. They saw that as a kind of recognition by God of their struggle to remain faithful to their identity and to their faith,” Archbishop Schwietz explained.
Despite years of atheistic repression, the Polish people clung to their Catholic faith “so steadfastly,” he said.
Stanley Borucki, a native of Poland who settled in Alaska in 1963, was elated over the pope’s beatification.
Borucki remembers him as the man who “dismantled the whole communist system” in Europe “without bloodshed, without some great revolution.”
In 1978, Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected as Pope John Paul II. “That was the greatest nightmare for the communist government,” recalled Borucki.
In 1979, the pope gave key support to the Polish Solidarity movement begun by Catholic shipyard worker Lech Walesa to secure the rights of workers and initiate massive social change.
In an attempt to stem the uprising, the Soviet-controlled government declared martial law in the early 1980s. At the time, a number of Polish fishermen were fishing in Alaska waters. Borucki helped them navigate the U.S. immigration process and found them jobs on American fishing ships.
In 1989, the communists ceded to a coalition government led by Walesa. The success in Poland led to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall later that year and the democratization of the Soviet bloc.
“The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II,” Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev later said.
Pope John Paul II receives a bouquet of forget-me-nots from Molly Marie during his Feb. 26, 1981 visit to Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage.
Archbishop Emeritus Francis Hurley remembers Blessed Pope John Paul II’s ability to surmount other societal barriers.
As the official host in Anchorage during the pope’s 1981 visit, Archbishop Hurley accompanied the pope through the city.
As they approached downtown that day, the archbishop recalled that the pope instructed his driver to stop and retract the vehicle’s convertible roof, so he could stand up and greet the elderly waving at him from the windows of the Anchorage Pioneer Home.
At Holy Family Cathedral, Archbishop Hurley recalled the pope visiting with the disabled and elderly people who had gathered there. “He went to each of them to greet them.”
One disabled girl handed the pope a Forget-Me-Not, the state flower, said Archbishop Hurley. Three years later, the girl’s mother traveled to see the pope in Fairbanks. The pontiff recalled the girl and her gift, Archbishop Hurley said – a special mercy for the mother who was then grieving her deceased daughter.
“He had that kind of touch,” Archbishop Hurley explained.
He noted that the pope extended that warmth also to Alaska’s Protestant ministers and Orthodox bishops whom he made a special effort to greet.
The pope also injected new vigor into Alaska’s Catholics. The visit “pulled a lot of Catholics out of the woodwork we didn’t know were Catholic” and inspired them back to the practice of their faith, Archbishop Hurley said.
Pope John Paul II drew attention to the church and brought Catholic cultural tradition to mission territory.
IMPACT ON YOUTH
Bob McMorrow, 37, Lumen Christi High School theology teacher and St. Benedict Church’s youth director, credits the pope for growing his own faith – and the faith of the generation that has only childhood memories of the late pontiff.
Pope John Paul II blesses the crowd during the Feb. 26, 1981 Mass on the Anchorage Park Strip.
McMorrow has clear memories of him. In 1993, he first attended World Youth Day, the international youth gathering begun by Pope John Paul II in 1985.
“It was a Pentecost experience, where you could sense the Holy Spirit coming through the crowd” and the pope “emanating” Christ’s love, McMorrow recalled.
“At that point, I knew I was Catholic,” he said. “And I understood the Vicar of Christ and I understood how God had a plan for the church.”
McMorrow now is passing down the Holy Father’s teachings to his students – who were just young children when the pope died. It is a challenge, he explained.
But the pope’s message is critical, he said.
“Blessed Pope John Paul II always believed in young people, and so therefore, he knew they were capable of great things and living a good and moral life,” McMorrow said.
The pope asked them to be “the saints of the new millennium,” he added. “He raised the bar very high and then challenged them to achieve it.”
HOLINESS IN DEATH
In death, Blessed Pope John Paul II raised the bar for non-Catholic Anchorage resident Fred Carpenter, 59.
Carpenter first saw the pope in 1981, when the papal motorcade stopped at 9th and L. The pontiff tipped his broad-brimmed “pope hat” toward him and his brother-in-law standing in the crowds.
“He had such a beautiful countenance, and he was a strong looking man,” Carpenter recalled.
That day, Carpenter felt “this was going to be not only a great pope, but a great man.”
“Even non-Catholics, you just had a feeling that this was a man of God … the Vicar of Christ,” Carpenter noted.
But it was especially in the pope’s death that Carpenter’s admiration for him grew.
After suffering years with Parkinson’s disease, the pope died on April 2, 2005 from a septic shock infection. In the days just before his death, he lost his voice and was visibly weakened even as he continued to pray for the thousands of faithful who gathered outside the papal apartment in Rome.
As the pope was dying, people the world over, including Carpenter, were transfixed by this holy death.
“It’s like the world stopped for three days,” Carpenter said.
The pope’s words in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) were poignant to vigil-keepers.
“Suffering, while still an evil and a trial in itself,” the pope wrote, “can always become a source of good. It becomes such if it is experienced for love and with love through sharing, by God’s gracious gift and one’s own personal and free choice, in the suffering of Christ Crucified.”
“In this way, the person who lives his suffering in the Lord grows more fully conformed to him (Phil 3:10; 1 Pet 2:21) and more closely associated with his redemptive work on behalf of the Church and humanity.”
“He showed the world human dignity even under the most dire physical circumstances,” Carpenter explained. “He showed us the way.”