NEW ORLEANS - For those who were there when Pope John Paul II died, the streets of Rome now are reminiscent of those days in 2005. He is what people are talking about, the focus of an entire faith. Only this time, the mood is electric instead of one of somber shock.
“It reminds me of that moment. It's almost like a family reunion, people coming back to remember this great pope, this great papa,” said journalist and broadcaster Raymond Arroyo, who is at the Vatican to cover the canonizations Sunday of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.
Thousands of people are expected in Rome to witness the canonization. Arroyo will be one of the people covering the event for a worldwide audience, as news director and lead anchor for EWTN, the religious cable network.
Arroyo, who spoke to us by phone this week, was a student at Brother Martin High School the first time he saw the pope. It was 1987 in New Orleans, and it was from afar.
“What a moment that was, being at the UNO Lakefront Arena and our dear Archbishop (Philip) Hannan hosting him,” Arroyo said. “It was an incredible moment. Never did I realize then that I would spend my journalistic career covering his papacy.”
During his 1987 visit and during his three decades as Holy Father, the pontiff spoke to the masses but connected with individuals, shaking hands, kissing strangers and looking straight into their eyes as they opened their hearts to the man who offered hope.
“When he walked in, it was like the 20th century was walking in. Here was a man that had lived through Nazism and Communism, liberated his people from that communist grasp, revived the faith of Poland and touched hearts all over the world,” Arroyo said.
To be sure, the man who would be saint was the only pope a generation of Catholics ever knew, and when he died in 2005, a singular cry echoed through St. Peter's Square: “Santo Subito,” or “Sainthood Now.”
Arroyo covered the event from a unique perspective, both as journalist and friend.
“The first time I introduced him to my wife and I said, ‘Her name is Rebecca,’ he said ‘Old Testament Rebecca,’” Arroyo recalled. “And every time I saw him after that he would ask, ‘How is Old Testament Rebecca?’ And he would never forget that.”
Arroyo has covered more papal events than any other journalist and has a firm grasp of church history, including its darkest moment in modern history: the sex abuse scandal. And while many blame John Paul, Arroyo says much of the abuse preceded his papacy, though he acknowledges more could have been done to stop it.
“There's no doubt that those charges should have been looked into more closely and in point of fact, the person urging that investigation forward and the one who carried it to completion was Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger.”
Ratzinger was John Paul's right hand man and would succeed him as Pope Benedict XVI, before retiring to make way for Pope Francis. This Sunday, both living popes will be there to witness the canonization of their predecessors.
“This is really an event for the first time in history that will contain four popes: two who are being raised to the altar and the two successors there together,” Arroyo said.
Covering the event for EWTN, the worldwide Catholic station available in 200 million homes, will be Raymond Arroyo, the man who grew up cheering for the Saints in New Orleans, only to cover the real deals, in Rome.