Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella, when he was Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, greets Pope John Paul II at a meeting in the Vatican in 2002. Photo from CCN files

Kinsella impressed by two popes

  • April 26, 2014

OTTAWA - In a career as a senator, academic and former seminarian in Rome, Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella met both Pope John XXIII and John Paul II.

He was a student in the Vatican when, by chance, he found himself at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on Jan. 29, 1959 as John XXIII announced he was going to call an ecumenical council.

“We were there and everybody was astounded,” Kinsella said. “The look on the faces on the monsignors who were all gathered around him! Boy, that certainly changed the Church.”

Nineteen years later, Kinsella was in St. Peter’s Square when the white smoke went up in 1978 to announce the election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope. Montreal Cardinal Paul- Emile Leger had been among the frontrunners. Wojtyla was little known outside Vatican circles and when he walked out onto the balcony Kinsella did not think of him as being papabile.

Today, Kinsella recognizes the saintliness of both men. In addition to holiness, he says they “had that mark of risibility that I am coming to see as a mark of sanctity. Here are two saints to be declared who are really fun,” he said.

Many of the professors Kinsella studied under would become advisors to the cardinals and bishops taking part in the Second Vatican Council, and many of the famous lights of the Church gave public lectures in Rome at the time.

“It was an incredibly good time to be there,” Kinsella said.

Even before announcing the Council, John XXIII had adopted an informal style contrasting greatly with the imperial papacy of Pius XII. He also began regular practice of visiting parishes in his diocese as Bishop of Rome. Kinsella was with friends at the Basilica of St. Mary Major when the pope arrived for a visit.

“I was standing with some colleagues in the foyer just outside the main doors and he stopped by and chatted with us,” said Kinsella, who was astonished to see a pope walking around after seeing the previous pope carried in a chair.

John XXIII had a reputation for a sense of humour. Kinsella heard through other students about one of his visits to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Rome where, in the basement, several chapels have been constructed of human bones from the remains of the Capuchin friars buried there.

After passing by the chapels, John XXIII said to one of his assistants, “On the day of the general Resurrection there is going to be quite a confusion here with these bones trying to find themselves.”

Kinsella said it strikes him how much John XXIII’s pastoral style is similar to that of Pope Francis.

“I always felt John XXIII was a saint. His warmth just radiated from the man.”

Kinsella met Pope John Paul II several times. He remembers most vividly an encounter with John Paul in his apartment or office in the Vatican in 2002, when the pope was already very ill. Though he was so ill, “he had an inner strength to carry on, did his duty and didn’t flinch and his mind was sharp, proven by how naturally he went from one language into another,” Kinsella said.

John Paul II also retained his wit. Kinsella noted that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that one attribute that distinguishes humans from other animals is risibility, the ability to laugh and smile, to see the humour in things. “Part of his saintliness was he had humour,” Kinsella said.

Kinsella was struck by the lack of bitterness in a man who was nearly killed by an assassin and who suffered for the Church as the sex-abuse scandals were erupting.

“I think it was prophetic what he was doing in Eastern Europe,” Kinsella said, noting he did not think the paradigm change there would have happened without the Pope’s intervention.

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