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Southbridge parish celebrates new saints, new name

Posted By May 1, 2014 | 12:40 pm | Lead Story #1

By Tanya Connor

“Welcome to Saint John Paul II Parish.”
Father Nelson J. Rivera chose his words carefully at the 8 a.m. Mass Sunday. A worldwide celebration had affected the parish where he is associate pastor. Earlier that morning, in Rome, the patron of Blessed John Paul II Parish in Southbridge had officially been declared a saint.
The pastor, Father Peter J. Joyce, was in Rome with 16 parishioners, including seminarian Carlos Ruiz, for the occasion. He wrote a message that was printed in the parish bulletin.
“Today we rejoice with the people of Poland as their native son joins the acknowledged ranks of the communion of saints, we take personal pride that he is the patron of our parish, and we celebrate anew the legacy of this great man. Let us look not only to his example, but to his powerful intercession to lead our parish forward.”
Polish parishes in the diocese were among other places that celebrated the canonization.
“It’s a beautiful experience to be in union with those members of our parish over in Rome,” said Father Jonathan J. Slavinskas, St. John Paul II Parish’s other associate pastor. He had just watched a live broadcast of the canonization with members of a movement named for the other pope canonized that day: John XXIII. They applauded after Pope Francis named his predecessors saints.
“I was smiling,” Father Slavinskas said. “That warmth – you felt it.” He said it reminded him of when he saw Pope John Paul II in St. Louis, Mo. The energy there was also at the canonization, he said.
“It rejuvenates the soul and really gets you excited for doing the Lord’s work in this world,” he said.
Viewing the canonization Mass live on the Eternal Word Television Network at 4 a.m. Sunday was part of a two-day Spanish-language retreat of Mass, adoration, concerts and films sponsored by the John the XXIII Movement. Blessed John Paul II Parish hosted the retreat at its St. Mary’s Church and St. John Paul II Ministry Center, where some people took turns sleeping and doing adoration overnight.
(The parish took the name Blessed John Paul II three years ago when it was formed from the merger of St. Mary’s, which included a Hispanic community; St. Hedwig’s, a Polish parish, and Notre Dame of the Sacred Heart, earlier formed from two French parishes. The church buildings kept their names. The parish’s name officially changed to St. John Paul II at 12:01 a.m. Monday.)
After watching the canonization broadcast, John Nieves, a delegate to the diocesan branch of the John the XXIII Movement and a member of St. Paul Cathedral Parish, said he was very happy.
“A new chapter begins,” he said of the movement. “We need to work harder, we need to make more retreats. We need to go out into the community and bring the people back to God.”
Mr. Nieves said that a movement leader asked for 24-hours of prayer for the canonization and that a retreat like theirs was held in 11 countries.
He said chapters of the the John the XXIII Movement are at Holy Trinity Chapel in Leominster and the parishes of St. John Paul II, St. Luke the Evangelist in Westborough, St. Francis of Assisi in Fitchburg, and, in Worcester at St. Paul Cathedral, St. Peter and St. Joan of Arc. He said 75 members signed up for the retreat, and others came too.
Fernanda Suggs said she recently joined St. John Paul II Parish and the John the XXIII Movement.
She said she saw Pope John Paul II in her native Guatemala, and her aunt met him there. This “pope of the family,” as Pope Francis called him at the canonization Mass, has been part of her family since, she said.
“I end up in a parish where I’m staying forever,” she said. “I think he guided me here.”
The canonization “means a lot to me,” Sister Rosita Campos, of the Sisters Oblates of Divine Love, said.  The pastoral associate for the Hispanic community at St. John Paul II Parish said the pope influenced her vocation when he visited her native Costa Rica: “I felt something very special when I saw him.”
“I want to congratulate our brothers and sisters from Poland,” Father Rivera said at Mass Sunday in Notre Dame Church, adding that St. John Paul II is a son of their country.  He also congratulated “brothers and sisters from Italy,” since St. John XXIII was Italian.
Father Rivera spoke of Jesus as “the center of our personal and communal life,” noted that it was the Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, and linked God’s love with mercy.
“Welcome to this celebration of life and love, and welcome to our parish – St. John Paul II,” he reiterated. “The new name comes with a responsibility – you and I need to walk in the path of holiness every day.” He preached about these themes.
“I cannot have a real relationship with God if I do not have a relationship with my brothers and sisters,” he said. “Everything in the life of the Church is about God’s mercy … and God wants us to give to one another what he has given to us – mercy.”
He spoke of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II being criticized as being too liberal or too conservative.
The reality of John XXIII, he said, was that he was a man able to go against what was established practice; a man who convened Vatican Council II, opening the Church’s doors to the world; a farmer whom some cardinals considered a transitional pope while they waited for a “more intelligent” one.
Father Rivera noted that Pope Francis had said that morning that St. John XXIII was open to the Holy Spirit.
“We are afraid of change,” the priest said, repeating a typical comment: “Father, I like things the way they are.”
His response?
“This is not about you.”
St. John XXIII recognized that things that worked well in the Church in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s didn’t work anymore, he said. Vatican Council II changes are credited to John XXIII.
Like Pope Francis, Father Rivera spoke of St. John Paul II as the pope of the family.
“John Paul II was very clear (that) family was the most important reality, and we need to understand family begins at home,” Father Rivera said.
“We are part of this huge family – the Church,” he continued.
In the day’s Gospel, the risen Christ told the disciples, “Peace be with you” three times. (Jn 20:19-31)
“Be at peace, because this is not your work – this is God’s work,” Father Rivera said. “That was the work of St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII … to lead us to Jesus Christ, to lead us to a new world, but always with the values of the Gospel” … rooted in love, mercy and justice. “That’s what makes a family a real one.”
He spoke of today’s disciples having a mission.
“If we have lemon faces … who can believe that he is alive?” he said.
At the end of Mass, Father Rivera asked how many times in history there were four popes at the altar, who lived in the same century, two still alive, “celebrating the Eucharist when heaven and earth came together.” (Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI celebrated the canonization Mass for Popes John Paul II and John XXIII.)
“Congratulations to ourselves,” Father Rivera concluded. “Congratulations to our parish. And let us begin a new era as St. John Paul II Parish.”
“It’s special having a saint that was alive in our lifetime, having him made a saint and having him be our special saint,” said Karen Loin, of the parish.
Margaret Farrand said when her father, Charles Trahan, was sick, he asked her to bring him the papal blessing from John Paul II that had been given to him and his wife for their 50th anniversary. Her father recovered.
“I never got close to any saints yet,” said Walter Payant. “I just pray to them.”