Blessed Are They

Christmas is joy, an inner joy of light and peace. – Pope Francis

If there were one gift I’d have given my Mom, aside from the A-frame house she always thought would be wonderful, it would have been a chance to meet her Pope. Her pope was John Paul II, the Polish pope.

Or maybe I only think that is the case, because he was my pope. Even having left the Church, I followed along, and felt a perhaps unseemly – if we are meant to be universally human – pride in the ascension of Karol Wojtyła, or Cousin Karol as I jokingly called him. Not only was he Polish, but he was handsome, bold, and articulate; he was theatre-trained and an avid outdoorsman. Here was a Pope with style, and a fine refutation to the tedious tiny din of ‘dumb Polack’ tropes and notions.

Not that Mom was one for fangirling, to use this modern verb. So, maybe I felt in some way that I was doing it for her, being the face of that pride she must be too dignified to display.  To put out too boldly any pride in her ethnic compatriot might rock too many boats, cause too much argument, and she never had a lack of that on offer from the world.

She had chosen, in accord with Polish patriarchal tradition, to honour her husband and his heritage above her own. She wouldn’t articulate it that way. She would point out that nobody, in the compass of our world, tried to exclude, bully or put us down because of our Polish blood. The issue was being Ojibway. If her own feisty Polish father had taught her anything, it was not to back down from an issue like that, but  throw it defiantly back in people’s face. Yes, he is. Yes, we are. Yes, my kids, and I’m proud of them.

So, she let our Polish heritage be, it didn’t need defending.

Still, when Cardinal Wojtyła took up the reins of the Roman Catholic church, it mattered. If she ever prayed for a sign to reinforce her faith that, without her promoting pride in our Polish heritage, we would find plenty to feel proud of, she must have felt deeply blessed many times, especially to hear his mighty words of inspiration:

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.

And to hear him named Blessed John Paul II, Saint John Paul the Great, mattered.

In another way, it mattered when the present pope announced his name. For the first time ever, a pope chose as namesake the most humble of saints, the saint closest to poverty, closest to an animist, indigenous understanding that our fellow travellers here, be they beast or bird, are deserving of our love and respect, are our relatives.

I like to imagine that it comforted her, I know it pleased her, that her Church was so strongly signalling a need to follow an avatar of humility and inclusivity. The ascension of Pope Francis was a bridge between our understandings of the world, and we could share a smile over tales of him eschewing pomp and grandeur, tooling about in a pokey little beater. He was confirmation, perhaps, that it was in fact, right, dignified and strong of her to have humbled herself, year after year, in service of others, to take a little less for herself if one of her own had any need.

Here was God, blessing with the highest office a man who immediately styled himself after the humblest Saint. Here was a Pope wearing her own mother’s name. Here was proof of her own worth, in some allegorical way. Here was a resting place of joy, the inner joy of light and peace that is the greatest blessing, at Christmas as at all seasons.

*This year, I am honouring my mom’s passing by writing throughout the Advent season, following as prompts the daily quotations cited in the free online calendar put out by the Catholic Medical Mission Board Mom was a lifelong Roman Catholic, and I was raised with the Church as a contentious part of our family life, given that my Ojibwe dad’s family was so affected by the church. Nonetheless, her faith was important to Mom, so this is a tribute to her. It’s also a reflection on how religions influence in many ways. 

If you like these posts, please also consider donating, in the memory of Albina Sewell, to Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton; her chosen charity for memorials is not religiously affiliated, but serves all children.

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