When I booked our flight to Rome for the canonizations of St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII, I thought it would be the trip of a lifetime for my wife Linda and me. Little did I know that this faith journey would quickly become an adventure, rivaling anything I have ever experienced either spiritual or worldly. Having now endured a sleepless marathon of crushing crowds with some 800,000 fellow Catholics, I have a new appreciation for John Paul’s first words after being elected pope: “Be not afraid!”

Eric and Linda Szatkowski pose for a photo with Bishop Donald J. Hying in St. Peter’s Square after the papal audience on April 23. (Submitted photo courtesy Eric Szatkowski)

The motivation

Before describing the drama of April 27, 2014, an opening act or two will better set the stage. The storybegins Oct. 16, 1978, my senior year at St. Thomas More High School, Milwaukee. It was just another mundane Monday on the seemingly endless road to graduation, until an announcement on the school’s PA system interrupted classes. I don’t remember who made the announcement, but I will never forget its contents: for the first time in history, the Catholic Church had a pope from Poland.

I had no clue about who Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was nor, honestly, did I care. As my eyes welled up sitting at my desk, all that mattered was that John Paul II was from Poland. The country my father left after the devastation of World War II, the country my mother’s family left after the carnage of World War I, the country (and the people) that many made jokes about was now the country of the Vicar of Christ. I couldn’t wait to get home to share the joy with my family.

Along with the rest of the world, as the days, months and years went by, I got to know more and more about this holy man. Like millions of others  – perhaps a few billion – my respect, admiration and love for him and his ministry grew like that mustard seed which lands on fertile ground.

I sometimes think back to the early 1980s when I worked as a news producer at TV6 in Milwaukee and the number of stories I wrote and edited about John Paul’s world-hopping trips. His unforgettable signature gesture of kissing the ground after getting off his plane made many a newscast for the couple of years I put together weekend news programs.

In 1986, Linda and I got up-close tickets to an audience of John Paul at St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Following the ceremony, the pope worked the crowd just a few feet from where we were seated. Much like toothpaste being squeezed from a tube, I somehow reached through a mob of frenzied faithful to shake the pope’s hand. I still remember the rush of adrenaline, almost like it happened yesterday.

Eric Szatkowski is interviewed by a reporter from WPLG Channel 10 News in Miami on April 23. The story aired in Miami later that day. In 1999, we made another pilgrimage to see John Paul during his pastoral visit to St. Louis – the last time he came to the United States. We did not get nearly as close, but what made it even more special was the fact we brought our kids – ages 7 and 9 – to share in the graces that poured forth from that once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Thanks to the Catholic Herald, I shared that experience with readers once we got back to Milwaukee.

Since John Paul meant so much to my family and me, it was a fait accompli to be in Rome for his canonization. Therefore, on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, the great migration to the Eternal City from Poland for John Paul II and from Italy for John XXIII would be joined by a couple of Szatkowskis from Milwaukee. And, once again, thanks to the Herald, I’m able to share another JPII experience.

Pope Francis

We arrived in Rome on Wednesday morning, just in time to make Pope Francis’ weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. The magnificence of the basilica was graced by two large banners bursting with lifelike images of the soon-to-be-saints, one on each side of the façade. Their day was yet to come, however, as the crowds gathered to see the man who announced their canonizations.

Pilgrimage Linked to academic journey

     May 18 will mark the 94th birthday of St. John Paul II. It is also the day that Eric Szatkowski will graduate from Marquette University with a master’s degree in Christian Doctrine. The final part of his academic journey was to write a final paper on a theological topic that incorporated what he learned at Marquette and how he planned to use his degree.
     Szatkowski chose John Paul’s theology of suffering, which helped bring peace and understanding in his own life, as well as a renewed belief in miracles. He hopes that his story will be particularly helpful and inspiring for those with loved ones who are suffering, especially due to cancer.   

Read “The Theology of Suffering: Saint John Paul II’s Legacy of Love.”

Wall-to-wall people and ground-to-sky excitement filled the piazza. People of all ages, races, nationalities, shapes and sizes huddled waiting for Francis to make his appearance. Much like watching a tennis match at Wimbledon, eyes and heads shifted side to side – from the front of St. Peter’s, where the papal stage was set up, to the Jumbotrons on the sides of the piazza.

The first glimpse came on the Jumbotrons as Francis greeted pilgrims somewhere inside the Vatican. With his world-famous charm on display, he kissed children, hugged those with disabilities, and brought beaming smiles to those with him and on the piazza as well.

After making his way to the popemobile, Francis made laps around the piazza, weaving around manmade lanes of barriers. It reminded me of watching a slow motion Formula One Grand Prix race, never knowing where the popemobile would emerge from the crowd, hoping to get a quick look before it once again disappeared from sight. Stopping a few times to put on a kid’s baseball cap or take a sip from the straw of a pilgrim’s drink, Francis eventually made it to the stage for his remarks and blessing. I was taken aback by the excitement, but only teased about what was to come in a 24-hour stretch between Saturday and Sunday.

All-night long adventure

By late afternoon on canonization eve, the enormity of the event and size of the crowd settled in. Being in Eric and Linda Szatkowski had Vatican-issued media credentials for the canonization Mass. (Submitted photos courtesy Eric Szatkowski) Rome, I got a taste of what it must have felt like to be here in antiquity, with hordes of invaders massing around the outskirts ready to storm the city. Fortunately, the invaders were only pilgrims and their mission was limited to taking over St. Peter’s Square for a day. Nonetheless, it would not be an easy victory.

Authorities shut down major sections of Rome to traffic, and kept pilgrims at bay until Sunday morning. There would be no camping out anywhere near St. Peter’s with a few exceptions, including a large group of Polish tourists amassed on the main cobblestone road leading to the front of St. Peter’s, and members of the media.

Thanks to the Catholic Herald, Linda and I were part of the latter group. Armed with our Vatican-issued “Stampa” credentials, i.e., press passes, we didn’t risk being drowned out of the piazza by a sea of humanity. We stayed up all night – wherever we could find shelter – to get in line as early as possible.

First, we visited the Society of the Divine Savior Motherhouse on the Via della Conciliazione, a stone’s throw from the piazza. There we met Salvatorian Fr. Mario Agudelo, performing a role reminiscent of Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler.

“Fr. Mario’s List” was for about 50 pilgrims from around the world who needed shelter in a city with sold-out hotels. Getting on the list got you past security and into a comfortable conference room at the motherhouse. We made the list thanks to Linda, finance director for the Sisters of the Divine Savior in Milwaukee, a part of the worldwide Salvatorian ministry.

A couple of hours before midnight, we left the motherhouse, worked our way through the crowd of Polish pilgrims, and settled into the high-tech and high-comfort Vatican Media Center.

At the stroke of 12, the center closed for the night. Media had to leave the building and get in line on the sidewalk down the block.

Unfortunately, between midnight and 4:30 a.m., we slowly morphed from being among the first half-dozen media in an orderly line to being scrunched into a restless mob of journalists, priests, sisters and others with special access. Police stood by as spectators smoked cigarettes and practiced the art of conversation with each other.

Shortly before 5 a.m., police let journalists and just about anyone else push their way in. Wearing my “Stampa” credentials was more than fitting, as a scurrying stampede of journalists, priests, religious and laity was herded to magnetometer lines.

After another half-hour or so of standing in place, the metal detectors’ conveyor belts started rolling. Our group of 50-100 journalists raced to our appointed seats, perhaps only 50 yards or so from the front steps of the basilica. At long last, it appeared the struggle to get in had paid off. The high-fives and handshakes among media folks said it all.

Next, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, our collective sense of excitement and relief was dashed. Police surprisingly ordered all of us out and to the opposite side of where we were first seated. At first blush, I thought, “No problem, still great seats.”

Moments later, however, we were ordered back to where we were sitting in the first place. I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding, but OK, fine. When in Rome….”

Unbelievably – now for the third time in about 15 minutes – we were again ordered to leave. This time away from all of the seated areas, told to head to the back of the piazza, and without an explanation. The journalists in our group scattered to run to find other spots in the square.

Linda and I were now without seats, back to standing up or trying to sit down on the ground among the bodies of people asleep after being up all night. It felt like going to Game 7 of the World Series, getting tickets behind home plate, then moving behind the Brewers’ dugout, and finally ending up in the last row of the upper deck. But as they say at Miller Park, there really is no such thing as a bad seat.

Despite the physical exhaustion and frustration, Linda and I were grateful to God for being present at this historic event. A few more hours of dealing with occasional pushing, getting stepped on, and a rude comment or two became irrelevant once the ceremony began.

By mid-morning, overcast skies produced sprinkles of rain as pilgrims paged through their 139-page orders of worship (including Italian, Polish, Latin and English translations). Linda, as always, was the one prepared with her small umbrella. A kind Italian man who had been right next to me for hours saw that I was getting wet.

Although he did not speak a word of English, he gestured for me to come under his large umbrella. Acts of kindness like this were much more representative of the crowd, now settled in, standing up, and ready to join in the celebration. We followed along the different parts of the ceremony as best we could with the words and prayers of Francis, occasionally singing along with familiar Latin hymns.

As the moment of canonization drew closer, I could not help but keep peeking ahead in my order of worship. I wanted to make sure I was wide awake when Francis said the words I came so far to hear: “… we declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II be saints and we enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole church.”

The bells of the basilica rang. The faithful in the piazza clapped. The tears formed in my eyes – just as they had as I sat in that class on Oct. 16, 1978. I had just crossed the finish line on a 36-year-long segment of my life’s faith journey. In the words of St. Paul, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7).

 (Szatkowski, a parishioner at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, Milwaukee, is a special agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice/Division of Criminal Investigation.)