IT CAN be hard to imagine those who are now revered as saints to have once been people like us - even if signs of their human existence may still exist as relics, like the finger bone of St. Thomas (the doubter) that's housed in the church of Santa Croce in Rome.
Not so with Pope John Paul II (pontiff from 1978 to 2005) and Pope John XXIII (1958 to 1963), who tomorrow will be canonized by the Catholic Church in a ceremony at St. Peter's Square led by Pope Francis. Both men lived in our own times, among us.
The six Philadelphians you will meet in these pages remember one or both of the soon-to-be papal saints not only as human beings but as intimates. Some met John Paul II during his recent papacy. For others, one of the popes' beliefs or actions, or even his proximity, profoundly shaped their lives.
Theresa Romanowski treasures the moment she gently held Pope John Paul II's hand and kissed his ring. William Madges, a former dean at St. Joseph's University who's in Rome for the dual canonization, says he originally planned to be a foreign diplomat - until the Vatican II reforms set in motion by Pope John XXIII inspired him to become a theologian instead.
Jude Iheoma was newly immigrated to America in 1979 when he joined more than a million others in Center City to see John Paul II give his blessing in Logan Circle. His wife, Esochi, got within a few feet of John Paul II when he stopped to shake hands on a rope line in the couple's native Nigeria.
Virginia Arenas didn't see John Paul II in person. But she lights up when she recalls gathering in the square with neighbors in a small Mexican town to watch TV coverage of John Paul II's visit to her country in 1999. She's been praying to him since his death nine years ago, not waiting for the formality of a canonization.
Gerald Beyer, a theology professor at Villanova, studied in Poland and came to see firsthand how Pope John Paul II helped inspire the trade union Solidarity and the fall of communism. Beyer, the son of a Port Richmond machine operator, has since made the dignity of human labor a centerpiece of his scholarship.
"How many people cansay they met a saint?"
Romanowski, 70, is a lifelong citizen of Port Richmond and lifelong congregant at St. Adalbert. Her mother, Mary, was born in Poland. Her father, Frank, was born in the U.S., but raised in Poland. Romanowski holds multiple roles at the city's Polish American Society, including administrative assistant.
"My father, he would always say, 'There will never be a Polish pope. They always have to be Italian.'" she says. "And I remember one time I said to my father, 'Dad, never say never.' ".
Still, she said, "it was astounding, really" to see a Polish pope, John Paul II, elected in her lifetime. "Anytime you saw a story about him or heard something about him, it was, 'Oh my Goodness, that's our pope.' "
In 1979, John Paul II visited Torun, a port city in Poland. Torun and Philadelphia are sister cities, and Romanowski traveled overseas as the city's Polish representative. She remembers standing before the future saint.
"When they mentioned who I was and said I was from Philadelphia, there was that smile, that special smile, because he loved Philadelphia and St. Adalbert and our pastor, who was his personal friend," she remembered. "He spoke very gently and you felt a warmth going through you."
Romanowski took the pope's hand - "so gently, like I was afraid to" - and kissed his ring. She later learned an Associated Press photographer had captured the moment and sent it worldwide. She looks at the photo every day, keeping copies at home and at work.
"Look at him! Such a simple man, a holy man, and when he looked at me, I felt his love," she said. "I'm very honored that I got to meet him. How many people can say they met a saint?"
Never underestimate a nun with a paperweight
Madges, 61, grew up in Detroit, attending Catholic schools and serving as an altar boy. He was in elementary school when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, which came to be known as Vatican II and would come to shape Madges' life's work.
Possibly, his fourth-grade teacher, Sister Coletta Marie, had an inkling of that when she gave her young pupil a Pope John XXIII paperweight, telling him: "This person is doing wonderful things. This is a man to pay attention to."
For a while, Madges didn't. After high school, he went to Xavier University to pursue a career in the foreign service. But there, after learning about John XXIII and the Vatican II reforms, he switched to theology.
"John XXIII had an attitude of openness, and that was a very dramatic change," Madges says, comparing Vatican II to "opening the windows and letting in fresh air."
"It was encouraging people to ask questions - or at least not discouraging them. How did we come up with this doctrine? Why did we come up with this particular practice? The council was giving young people a way to fully engage their brains and still give them ways to be religious believers."
On his redirected career path, Madges went on to become dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at St Joseph's University, where he's now a professor of theology - and still in possession of the Pope John XXIII paperweight from sister Coletta Marie.
He keeps his childhood papal memento in his office, along with a more recent one: a photograph of himself and Pope John Paul II, from a brief audience in 2004. "At this point, Parkinson's had so far debilitated him it was difficult for him to speak," Madges recalled.
Still, "I had a sense of this personal warmth," he said. The aged and ailing pope met his visitor's gaze with intelligence and comprehension, and listened as he spoke. "That was a very special moment."
"The Mexican community, we love him so."
Arenas, 33, grew up in San Carlos Buenavista, in the state of Puebla in Mexico. She remembers spending every Sunday at her childhood church, San Carlos Borromeo. Today, the married mother of four worships at Kensington's Visitation B.V.M.
"Juan Pablo," as she's always knew John Paul II, was already pope when she was born, on April 27, 1980. She's thrilled, she said through a translator, that he'll be officially recognized as a saint on her 34th birthday.
But she's not surprised by his canonization. "Growing up, I thought he was a saint. That's how we always saw him," she said.
During his papacy, John Paul II visited Mexico five times. "We always paid attention to where he was and what he was doing. We always wondered if he would come back to Mexico," she said, and in 1999, he did.
"We are a small town - far from the city," she said, recalling. "So the family with the biggest TV brought it out to the square so we all could watch. Not everyone had TVs.
"The environment was emotional, happy, just waiting for the moment that he came on. There were some older people who were even crying.
"The Mexican community, we love him. We love him so," she said. "And the love we had for him, we had before he came to Mexico, before we saw him.
"We've never seen God himself, but we still love him, too."
Jude and Esochi Iheoma
On three continents, a saintly presence
The Iheomas are active members of the area's Igbo Catholic community, which is centered around West Philadelphia's St. Cyprian Roman Catholic Church. Both natives of Nigeria, they now live in Richboro.
Jude, 57, is a clinical psychologist. Esochi, 46, is a dentist. She was still a student when John Paul II walked her way during one of his two papal visits to Nigeria. "I wished I could just stop time and savor it," she says now. "I felt so free and so holy at that moment. It was a deep-seated joy."
In addition to joining the throngs greeting Pope John Paul II on separate continents during the globe-trotting spiritual leader's papacy, the couple recently visited his tomb in Vatican City together. That, too, was a holy experience, Jude said.
"You felt a chill. You knew there was something different about this man," he said. "If you went to that grave, you wouldn't think twice. You know he should be a saint."
Esochi said she prays regularly, not to certain saints but with them, including John Paul II. His photo is in the family's living room, three well-used candles in front of it.
"It is a pleasure to see a human being like him, who lived such an exemplary life in the world, elevated to this status," she said. "We thank God profoundly for what he has become for the world."
His life's work honors John Paul II
Beyer, 44, walked in Pope John Paul II's footsteps while studying in Poland during the 1990s, finding inspiration in the pope's writings and speeches.
"Blessed John Paul had a very important role in Solidarity and the fall of communism," Beyer said. "That's both fascinating and inspiring."
The Polish pope's visit to his homeland in 1979 "had a huge impact," Beyer said. Then, in 1981, John Paul wrote the papal encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) addressing workers' rights and the dignity of people's labor. Solidarity leaders cited the work as an inspiration, and it inspired Beyer as well.
"For the first time, in a really compelling way, I learned that the Catholic Church promotes the rights of workers. I think it caused me to take the path that I did."
"It's something I return to very often in my writing and teaching," he said. He teaches classes like "Markets and Morality" and wrote a book about the Solidarity movement.