His leadership helped bring down the Soviet Union. He forgave the man who tried to kill him. He traveled the world and wrote 14 encyclicals. Throughout his 27-year papacy, St. John Paul II inspired millions.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said he was in St. Peter's Square the day St. John Paul II was elected to the papacy in 1978 and remembered seeing white smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said he was in St. Peter’s Square the day St. John Paul II was elected to the papacy in 1978 and remembered seeing white smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel.

On Oct. 22, Catholics around the world celebrated the influential late pope’s feast day for the first time ever. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix presided at a noon Mass at St. Mary’s Basilica in honor of St. John Paul II who visited the downtown church in 1987. Just inside the doors, members of the congregation took turns kneeling in the spot where St. John Paul II once prayed.

Bishop Olmsted recalled being in St. Peter’s Square the day Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected pope. He said the news media was there in force and many were showing photos of the man they thought would be elected to the papacy.

“All the pundits had overlooked this man…none of them had his picture,” Bishop Olmsted said, “but God’s ways are not our ways — they are far better than our ways.”

He also recalled the late pope’s words about Divine Providence.

“John Paul II liked to say there is no such thing as coincidence. We might not understand … but we can be sure that all things are unfolding under His providential hand,” Bishop Olmsted said.

Karol Wojtyla did not hear the call to the priesthood early in life, but discovered his vocation later on, Bishop Olmsted said. As a young man, he became involved in the underground theater in Poland during the time of the brutal Nazi occupation.

Read Bishop Olmsted’s homily: Gift and Mystery

“It was the mystery of evil that helped Karol discover the greater mystery of God’s love,” Bishop Olmsted said. “The love of God breaks through in the most unexpected ways precisely when evil seems to triumph or sorrow breaks the heart.”

St. John Paul II, who held the first World Youth Day in 1986, touched the lives of countless individuals who today serve the Church today as married couples, priests and religious sisters. Many members of the “JP2 generation,” as it has been dubbed, were present at the Oct. 22 Mass. Katrina Zeno, coordinator of the John Paul II Resource Center for the Diocese of Phoenix, was one of them. To pray in the church where St. John Paul II once prayed and to hear a homily given by Bishop Olmsted, who worked for the saint for years was exhilarating, she said.

“Bishop Olmsted said it well, that St. John Paul II titled his own reflection on his life ‘Gift and Mystery.’ We forget a gift is often surprising and unexpected,” Zeno said. “In a time when human resources cannot bring about a change, that is often when our hearts and eyes are open to receiving God’s action in new way.”

Lisa McDaniel, a physician’s assistant at Morning Star Obstetrics and Gynecology, said that besides her parents, St. John Paul II has been the greatest human influence on her life.

“His writings on the Theology of the Body transformed the way I look at every single person I encounter — strangers, patients, family and myself,” McDaniel said. “It’s helped me to see that my body and my life are gifts.”