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Two Popes Ties to Chicago

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On Divine Mercy Sunday, Chicago Catholics – like all Catholics around the world – watched with delight as Popes John Paul II and John XXIII were canonized as Saints in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.

It may seem to us that legendary figures like John XXIII and John Paul II are pretty far removed from our own lives, being Europeans who served as head of the whole Catholic Church, decades ago. Still, you might be surprised just how much direct impact they've had on Chicagoans. There are landmarks in the Chicago area that are testimonials to both Popes, and they existed here long before either became a Saint.

John XXII served as Pope for a brief time, from 1958-1963. He is remembered for instituting Vatican II, resulting in changes like the Mass being said in English instead of Latin. At the time of his death, he was considered “the most beloved Pope in history” and is fondly remembered by many older Chicago Catholics. John XXIII never once set foot in Chicago – either before or after becoming Pope – but the same can be said for Casmir Pulaski, and we have a state holiday named after him. Simply put, John XXIII had a profound effect on the culture of Chicago, and thus many things in Chicago were renamed in honor of him after he became Pope. Perhaps the most notable example is Pope John XXIII Elementary School in Evanston. He was chosen as the school’s patron in 1986, because it is an integrated school of many ethnicities , and John XXIII focused on emphasis on inclusion. There are two parishes that share Pope John XXIII School, – St. Mary’s and St. Nicholas. The name “Pope John XIII” has been a positive boom to the school, although at the time it was named after him, no one foresaw him becoming a Saint. Chicago is also home to the Blessed John XXIII Award (which will likely be called the Saint John XXIII award the next time it is awarded). This award is given to a priest for excellence in priestly ministry and for significant contributions to the life of the Church of Chicago. Examples are a priest that has esteem and respect within the Presbyterate, so his years of ministry inspire and exemplify priestly leadership. The award is meant to reflect that the priest carries the vision and courage of Pope John XXIII in his ministry.

The more recent of the two Popes, John Paul II, has an even greater direct link to Chicago. John Paul II visited our city when he was Pope in 1979, and many Chicagoans recall meeting the future Saint face to face in Chicago. Five Holy Martyrs Church in Chicago's Brighton Park neighborhood was particularly packed when the Pope was canonized, since John Paul II had said mass in that very church when he visited the city. They held a special Mass this year in honor of the Pope's canonization. Hundreds of Polish Catholics in Chicago also marched with the Pope when he visited St. Hyacinth Basilica for a Polish mass, and hundreds more saw the Pope speak in Chicago when he had a special outdoor three hour service in Grant Park. The Grant Park mass was the largest ever mass celebrated in Chicago at the time, and the record remains unbroken today. John Paul II's visited often resonated with Chicagoans more so than other American cities because he was the first Polish Pope and Chicago has 500,000 residents of Polish ancestry, making it home to the second largest Polish community in the world after Warsaw, and the largest in the United States. John Paul II was in Chicago from October 4-6, 1979, and faced huge, joyful crowds wherever he went. It started from his arrival at O'Hare International Airport on the evening of Oct. 4 and it ended with is departure on the morning of the 6th. In between, he also addressed 350 American bishops at Quigley Preparatory Seminary South (then located at 7740 S. Western Ave. in Chicago), where he defended the Church's teaching against abortion, extramarital sex, homosexuality relationships, and divorce. John Paul II stood firm for the Catholic faith, and remained popular worldwide.

So perhaps surprisingly, you can see many signs of John XIII and John Paul II in Chicago today, despite many Catholics who are lapsed or who are in open defiance of the Catholic faith. Even individuals who dislike the Catholic Church as a whole, tend to have a positive opinion of John XXIII and John Paul II, and respect and admire the legacy they left. Their recent canonization only further enforces this fact.

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