Throngs in diocese venerate relic of Blessed John Paul II

By: By Tom Dermody

Five months before his canonization draws expected record crowds to Rome, the life and witness of Blessed John Paul II was celebrated in the Diocese of Peoria by throngs who came to venerate his official relic. (See slideshow above below for dozens of images.)

Pilgrims from throughout the diocese and beyond took advantage of the rare opportunity first during a Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Monday, Nov. 18. The following day, 2,000 diocesan Catholic school students visited the Spalding Pastoral Center to learn more about Blessed John Paul II and view the relic. And on Tuesday night, the relic was displayed for college students and guests at the John Paul II Catholic Newman Center near the campus of Illinois State University in Normal.

“On Mercy Sunday (April 27) in the coming year, Blessed John Paul II will be proclaimed St. John Paul II,” said Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, during Monday evening’s Mass. To ringing applause throughout the packed cathedral — and from another 500 pilgrims viewing on large screens in the nearby Spalding Pastoral Center — the bishop added that “He certainly should also be called St. John Paul the Great.”

Bishop Jenky used the historic occasion — the Diocese of Peoria was one of only three dioceses to host the relic during its U.S. pilgrimage — to remind Catholics that “like John Paul, we too are all called to be saints.”

He urged those present to “strive with renewed commitment and energy to imitate the unwavering faith, the intense love, and generous service of John Paul II.”

The crowds venerating the relic (a vial of the late pope’s blood encased in a gold Book of the Gospels) were so large that the cathedral was filled a half-hour prior to the start of Mass. It took more than two hours after the liturgy’s conclusion for the line of pilgrims to finally complete their private veneration.

“My friends, we’re in no rush,” said Msgr. James Kruse, vicar general, during instructions on how to venerate the relic. “This is a time for prayer, a time for private meditation. We will stay till all have had the chance.”

One of the first to do so, following Bishop Jenky and the dozens of priests and deacons present, was Yvonne Aisquith, a member of St. Ann Parish in Peoria. As she leaned forward in her wheelchair to kiss the relic, Aisquith prayed for her three children and five grandchildren. She was brought to tears.

“He’s a saint, such a beautiful special man,” she told The Catholic Post moments later. “With all the good he’s done, to be here with him is just about the best blessing on earth.”

Maria Herrera carried her young daughter Isabella forward to venerate the relic.

“I didn’t get to see him in real life,” said the Mexico native who now lives in Peoria. “This is the closest I’m ever going to get. It gave me chills just to see (the relic) pass by.”

Pilgrims were given holy cards with an image of Pope John Paul II as well as a white kerchief with his picture and motto, “Totus Tuus” (All for you). Msgr. Kruse explained that these and other items such as rosaries touched to the vial of blood, known as a first-class relic, would become third-class relics.

Many waved the kerchiefs as the relic was carried into the cathedral atop a platform adorned with flowers during the opening procession. Throughout Mass, it was displayed on a red velvet base in the sanctuary near the ambo. A large portrait of Blessed John Paul II stood behind the ambo. When the relic was moved to the front of the sanctuary following Communion for veneration, a second portrait was placed with it.

Bishop Jenky opened the Mass by remembering the victims of powerful storms both near and far.

“We assemble this evening in prayerful solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Philippines and in Vietnam, recovering from that terrible typhoon,” said Bishop Jenky, “and in prayerful solidarity with our neighbors, recovering from the tornadoes that hit the Midwest.” The victims of Sunday’s tornado were again in the Prayer of the Faithful, that “they may know the comfort of the Christian community.”

In his homily, Bishop Jenky reflected on the life of Blessed John Paul II, from his upbringing in Poland to his leadership of the Catholic Church for almost 27 years.

He recalled Blessed John Paul II’s frequent challenge to “be not afraid,” how he boldly preached the Gospel during visits to 129 different nations, and his role in changing world history, including the downfall of communism in eastern Europe.

“The pope was never afraid to challenge any wicked government, the Mafia, drug lords, and all those who exploited the poor and the weak,” said Bishop Jenky.

“His intellectual gifts were extraordinarily prodigious,” the bishop added. “His encyclicals and books, his homilies and addresses, will certainly always be studied and savored among the great treasures of Catholic learning and spirituality.”

Bishop Jenky also offered personal reflections of his visits with the late pope, noting his “intensity of prayer, his unassuming charm and enormous good humor.”

Sustained applause greeted the bishop’s recollection that it was John Paul II who appointed him as a bishop of the Catholic Church.

The relic’s visit to Peoria was made possible by the devotion to Blessed John Paul II of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The order’s foundress, Mother Adela Galindo, SCTJM, is traveling with the relic during U.S. stops in Florida and central Illinois. Eighteen members of the community were present at the cathedral, with some leading praise music or the rosary during the hours of veneration.

Mother Adela spoke about the late pope’s love for young people on
Tuesday night when the relic was venerated at the John Paul II Newman Center at Illinois State University in Normal. In addition, nearly 2,000 Catholic school students from throughout the diocese saw the relic at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria on Tuesday.

In welcoming remarks at the cathedral Mass, Patricia Gibson, chancellor of the Diocese of Peoria, pointed out that the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary were among many religious communities formed during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. She expressed gratitude for the community’s work and witness in the diocese. Members operate Nazareth House in Henry, staff the John Paul II Newman Center, and guide Catholic Charities in the diocese.

Bishop Jenky also thanked Mother Adela for her role in bringing the relic first to Florida and then “to the center of the Catholic world, Peoria and Bloomington.”

He then led applause for all religious women “who are such a treasure to this diocese by everything they do for Christ.”

The evening drew pilgrims from well beyond the boundaries of the Diocese of Peoria. A bus brought 25 members of Sacred Heart Parish in Sterling, including Joanne Boesen, who came in hopes for a miracle cure of her emphysema, and Ann Eddinger, who said she will always remember how “the music was phenomenal, like angels singing.”

The cathedral choir and brass was augmented by voices from Immaculate Conception Parish in Monmouth.

Tracy Baldenegro and Mike Boldrey of St. Joseph Parish, Peru, were among dozens to watch the Mass on a screen from the cathedral’s St. Thomas More Chapel. “I’m honored to be here,” said Baldenegro, crediting the invitation of Father Antonio Dittmer, pastor of the LaSalle parishes, for the presence of many from LaSalle County.

Many came because they had never seen Pope John Paul II in person. Others, like Mary Duncan of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Peoria, came because they had.

“I saw him once in Rome, and once in St. Louis,” she recalled. “Every time was so inspiring. You know when you’re in the presence of a saint.”

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