Mass honors Pope John Paul II High’s patron saint

Celebrating Mass in a stole and chasuble worn by St. John Paul II during his 1987 visit to New Orleans, Father Patrick Wattigny told students at Pope John Paul II High in Slidell that their school’s newly canonized namesake had more “cred” than most when he urged the people of the Communist world to “be not afraid.”

Lessons on unflinching faith in God, observed Father Wattigny, are easy to take from a man who met with his would-be assassin in jail – and forgave him.

“You can stand down anything this world can bring at you! John Paul did it!” said Father Wattigny, the high school’s chaplain, addressing students during the homily of a special May 1 Mass honoring the recent canonization of the Polish-born pope.

“Be an orphan? (John Paul) did that. Lose all of his family? He did that. Watch his fellow countrymen enslaved and slaughtered during wartime? He did that. And he didn’t give up hope; he didn’t turn to drugs; he didn’t commit suicide; he didn’t abandon his faith or his Lord,” Father Wattigny said.

Third-class relics present

The Mass, which coincided with the third anniversary of St. John Paul’s beatification, featured a number of special touches connected with the school’s saintly patron.

The second reading was proclaimed in both Polish and English, while the blue, red and gold banners borne by students in the procession were the very ones their Pope John Paul II High student-predecessors carried in the pope’s outdoor Mass at the University of New Orleans on Sept. 12, 1987.

Two silver ciboria handled by the pope at that same historic Mass – on loan to the high school from a Metairie family – were present on the altar during the consecration. Father Wattigny’s white chasuble and beige stole, borrowed from St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, are part of a vestment set worn by Pope John Paul II during a private Mass with Archbishop Philip Hannan at the chapel in the archbishop’s residence.

“I definitely feel unworthy to wear this chasuble and stole today,” said Father Wattigny, noting that the pieces of priestly attire and the two Communion vessels now are third-class relics – items that have been touched by a saint.

Gospel removes barriers

During his homily, Father Wattigny asked congregants to reflect on papal achievements indicative of St. John Paul II’s fearlessness. In 1978, the year he was elected pope, “the Iron Curtain still weighed heavily on Eastern Europe,” but the pope, armed with “the power of the Gospel,” knew God would pave the way for him to visit his homeland as the first Polish-born pope, Father Wattigny said.

“To go to Poland in 1979 was no easy task. It wasn’t a matter of buying an airplane ticket and booking a reservation with a travel agent,” Father Wattigny said, noting that state-controlled television unsuccessfully attempted to block the broadcast of the pope’s visit. An estimated 13 million Poles turned out to see John Paul in person during the eight-day trip.

“It was a logistical nightmare, but it happened,” Father Wattigny said, telling students that John Paul’s papacy was instrumental in championing the freedom to worship and the dignity of the human being – changes of heart that ultimately would topple Communism in eastern Europe.

His first eponymous school

After the recessional hymn, Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan presented Father Wattigny with a proclamation declaring May 1 as  “St. John Paul II Day.” A multi-media presentation followed on a jumbo screen, featuring video footage and still photographs of the pope at various stages of his 27-year pontificate. Dramatically backed by audio snippets of Pope John Paul speaking in English, the presentation, produced by senior Cody Bienvenu, flashed some impressive statistics. The high school congregants, all of whom were in their early elementary school years when Pope John Paul II died in 2005, learned that he was comfortable in 12 languages, traveled to 129 countries and canonized 483 saints during his papacy.

Photos of students at work and worship at their Slidell campus were mixed in with the papal images, hammering home the high school’s proud distinction of being the first school in the world (1980) to be named for Pope John Paul II.

School administrators said there were no plans to change the high school’s name from “Pope” John Paul II to “Saint.”

Devoted to Our Lady

The Mass’ May 1 date was also chosen to underscore St. John Paul’s lifelong devotion to the Blessed Mother. Following the liturgy, students carried banners from the gym in silent procession to their campus’ new rosary garden to read reflections on the five Luminous Mysteries – the set of rosary meditations added by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

After Father Wattigny sprinkled the rosary garden with holy water, Pope John Paul II High Student Ambassadors decked the foot of the Blessed Mother statue with flowers, and freshman Gabriel Hernandez and junior Rebecca Mitton placed a crown of baby white roses on Mary’s head.

Senior Spencer Bogran, chapel sacristan and a member of the Pope John Paul II Liturgy Team, called it a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to participate in a Mass for a saint who was intrinsically connected to his school.

“It’s been such an education to work on this Mass. Regular Masses are like, ‘Stand up, sit down. There was a lot of moving around (to and from the gym),” Bogran said. “Today was the first time I’ve ever heard a recording of Pope John Paul’s voice.”

Beth Donze can be reached at 

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