CAMDEN The "great son of Poland" received a powerful affirmation of sainthood from parishioners at St. Joseph's Church in Camden on Sunday.
The church - the unofficial seat of the Catholic Polish community in South Jersey - said a celebratory Mass for about 800 people in honor of the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. Regular Masses draw about an eighth as many to the church, founded in 1892 in the Whitman Park section.
"We come to celebrate something of great joy and great importance: that we have two new saints," said Bishop Dennis Sullivan, who presided at the Mass.
The 90-minute service included readings and hymns in Polish and processions by the Knights of Columbus in the ornate sanctuary, home to an important relic of John Paul - a dot of blood encased in a glass-and-brass cylinder kept on the altar.
A portrait of John Paul surrounded by flowers and Polish flags sat at the center of the altar, flanked by two banners also bearing his picture.
In a 20-minute homily, Sullivan championed the two popes' lives for giving us "human examples, examples that we need of virtuous living. We reflect on how they lived, on their virtues, and how they lived their lives encourages you and me."
Sullivan lauded John XXIII for his engagement with other religions, reaching out to Muslims as early as the 1950s. He said the former pope brought change "desperately needed for a church coming out of the 19th century yet still stuck in the 16th century."
He praised John Paul for his work on the Second Vatican Council, his role in the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War, and his commitment to the papacy through his illness.
A week before he died, John Paul stood at the window to bless the thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square. "Unable to speak a word, and perhaps speaking to the world as he had never done before, he stood there silently, quivering, facing death," Sullivan said, "as crowds cheered, 'Santo subito!' 'Sainthood now!' "
The bishop's rousing homily received energetic applause. By the closing procession, as the chorus sang "How Great Thou Art," Mary Anne McMahon had tears in her eyes.
"The whole atmosphere of this place and that it was a Polish man who did so much, breaking the barrier in Poland, it's special," said McMahon, of Haddonfield. Her husband, Thomas, has a photo on his office desk of John Paul's prison visit with Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to assassinate him.
"It's an incredible image of forgiveness," he said.
Though most people in the pews did not belong to St. Joseph's, almost everyone seemed to have a story of connection to the church.
"I was baptized here, married here. This is my home," said Florence Wisniewski, now of Pitman.
Pastor Pawel Kryszkiewicz, who has headed St. Joe's since 2009, said John Paul "taught us not to give in to negativity or thoughts that set people apart."
At a luncheon in Cinnaminson where a Polish string band played and pierogies and kielbasa were served, participants recalled seeing the pope.
Joe Daniszewski, 73, of Cape May Court House, sang in the chorus when John Paul visited the Meadowlands 19 years ago.
Lisa Coulter, 36, saw him in 1993 at World Peace Day in Denver. She was 15, and she recalled the trip, run through the Diocese of Camden, as more fun than her visit to Disney World that year. "He's someone who became a saint during my lifetime," she said. "There's more of a connection."