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January 24, 2011

No sooner had Pope John Paul II died than some began to refer to him as John Paul the Great. That was a verdict on his papacy more than on the man. Such a verdict, however, cannot be delivered so quickly. It will take decades, at least, to judge the lasting effects of the unquestionably potent papacy of the first Polish pope.

The judgment on the man does not take so long. Long before his death, we knew he was a great and holy man. This was so evident on his many trips abroad. No matter where he went, people flocked to catch a glimpse, to touch the hem of the garment of a man who lived and breathed the love of God.

His beatification on May 1 will be a wonderful celebration of the life of a holy man. But it is also just a confirmation of something the world long knew. Karol Wojtyla was a saint, a great saint. The only regret is that it took six years to have this celebration.

Pope John Paul's whole life was a miracle - it seemed overkill to have a canonization process search for more miracles. He came astonishingly close to being taken to a Nazi prisoner of war camp and almost certain death. As a bishop, he challenged a Communist regime constantly and continually found ways to preserve room for a free human conscience to flourish amidst supposed totalitarianism.

His election as pope was a surprise, a shock really. Likely none of the cardinals who elected him had much inkling of just how dynamic a pope he would be.

He took a bullet to the stomach, survived, went to prison to forgive the man who shot him and to Fatima to thank the Virgin Mary for saving his life.

Pope John Paul came to Canada three times, once coming to Edmonton to pray in our cathedral, to celebrate Mass in a farmer's field, and to walk and pray in Elk Island National Park. No pope has ever come here before. It will likely be a long time before one comes again. For us, that visit was a miracle.

People in hundreds of centres around the world remember the same thing: "Pope John Paul came to our city. His presence blessed our city and it blessed us."

That presence particularly blessed the people of Eastern Europe, especially his native Poland. It was he, more than anyone or anything else, that provided the spiritual spark that toppled the communist system.

Pope John Paul drew people together - people of different faiths, of different Christian commitments, rich and poor. He created World Youth Day and strove diligently - and with no small success - to make a home for young people in the Church.

In the end, he suffered long, publicly and with grace. His final years bore witness to the dignity of the elderly and the sick.

Of course, Pope John Paul is a saint. But it's still grand to have the Church officially recognize what has long been obvious to all.