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When the Catholic Church takes the first step toward sainthood for Pope John Paul II tomorrow, Rapid City seminarian John Paul Trask will be watching the beatification ceremonies — and the controversies surrounding it — while studying for final exams at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Winona, Minn.

John Paul Witte, a 6-year-old Rapid City boy, will go to Mass with his family at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Sunday wearing a button commemorating the pope whose name he shares.

And yet another of the late pope’s namesakes, Rapid City teenager Johnny Hofer, will celebrate his 18th birthday on May 1, the same day that Pope Benedict XVI is performing a record-setting beatification of his predecessor at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The popular pontiff, who is on a fast track to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church just six years after his death in 2005, also lent his name to plenty of Catholic boys during his 27-year papacy, said Linda Hofer. 

“There are tons of kids named after him. He was just a phenomenal Holy Father for the youth,” Hofer said.

Theresa Witte chose the name for her son just six months before Pope John Paul II died.

“We love him very much,” Witte said of the pope that she saw just once in 1979, during the first of his seven papal visits to the United States.

Trask, a 23-year-old seminarian in the Diocese of Rapid City, said a connection to the pope has always been part of his identity, even when he didn’t necessarily want it to be. His parents, Pat and Rose Mary Trask, insisted on using both names for their fourth-born son, who is one of 12 children in the Elm Springs ranch family, as a sign of their admiration for the pope.

“We just more and more admired John Paul,” Rose Mary Trask said. “He was such a saintly person living right on the planet at the same time we were.”

During his childhood, her son recalls sometimes wishing he could be plain old John, just to get rid of that “religious thing.”

“My name just struck people as a little more religious than most. I got that a lot,” he said. The name also resonated with non-Catholics, even if they weren’t exactly sure why. “I remember one guy said to me, ‘Oh, is that a Bible figure?’”

Today, he’s happy to have the name. 

“I’ve come to really appreciate the man I’m named after. Now, I feel honored to have that name,” said the soon-to-graduate seminarian who will enter Theology College at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., this fall.

Trask admits that he’s been surprised by the fast pace of John Paul II’s beatification.

“I am a little floored at how fast that is happening,” he said.

Coming just six years and 29 days after his death, the move to beatify this pope, which is the first step to canonization — the Catholic Church’s declaration that a person is a saint — is the fastest in modern times. Mother Teresa’s beatification is the second-fastest by just 15 days. In both cases, Pope Benedict XVI waived the normal five-year waiting period after death to even launch the beatification process.

Critics of his papacy — and there are many in both the liberal and conservative wings of the Catholic Church — are asking, why so fast?

“The rush to do it is the major concern we have,” said Robert Brancato, a clergy sexual abuse victim and director of the South Dakota SNAP chapter. Brancato called a quick canonization, which is the final step to sainthood, a bad idea in light of the clerical sexual abuse case that scandalized the church during Pope John Paul’s papacy.

“Personally, it’s really putting salt into the wounds of the victims, this rush through the beatification process when there is so much history involved with the pope’s knowledge of the abuse crisis,” he said, citing the former leader of the Boston Archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law, who was given a prestigious job at the Vatican after resigning over his mismanagement of the abuse crisis.

But many faithful Catholics are squeamish about the speed of this process, as well, including traditionalists who criticize his ecumenical efforts. Others say his record of dealing with the Legionaries of Christ debacle was appalling. More than 1,500 people have signed a statement issued by the small, tradition-minded publication The Remnant that expressed reservations about the beatification.

Vatican correspondent John Allen reports that while John Paul’s track to sainthood may seem fast to some, it is by no means the speediest on record.

“That distinction belongs to St. Anthony of Padua, who died in June 1231 and was canonized less than a year later by Pope Gregory IX. Anthony even beat out his master, St. Francis of Assisi, who was canonized 18 months after his death in October 1226 (also by Gregory IX),” Allen wrote for the National Catholic Reporter.

Trask was a sophomore in high school when the pope died, and he remembers watching television coverage of his death as part of his geography class at Wall High School.

“I never encountered Pope John Paul personally, so I can’t say yea or nay about John Paul’s holiness as a man,” he said.

But the multitudes of people who praise his holiness, including his own mother, have convinced him.

“It’s not mass hysteria. There’s something more to it, for sure,” he said.

Rose Mary Trask recalls the crowds who gathered worldwide to keep vigil when the pope was dying.

“The people just knew. Nobody had to tell them that was a saint,” she said of those spontaneous vigils.

His personal history of defying Nazi Germany and standing against communism in Poland speak to his saintliness, she said. “He understood working people. He knew what solidarity was all about. He’s such a patron for anybody trying to do things that are hard.”

The Rev. Michel Mulloy, rector of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, said the pope’s holiness was apparent to him while he watched the intensity of his personal prayer when he had the privilege of celebrating Mass with him in 1993 at the North American College in Rome.

“To think back on that experience, it’s pretty amazing to me to personally have met someone who the church is beatifying,”

Mulloy said. “His holiness was evident. It was really obvious to me.”

Priests at the Cathedral will mention the pope’s beatification in their Sunday sermons, Mulloy said, and there will be special commemorative buttons, as well as prayer cards, with images of John Paul II on them, available at all the Masses.

“I think it’s wonderful,” he said of tomorrow’s beatification. “It’s a rare opportunity … to witness the beatification of somebody who lived at the same time we do.”

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

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