Group of Americans makes pilgrimage to see double canonization

Yurek Majcherczyk during one of his audiences with Pope John Paul II. Photo courtesy of Yurek Majcherczyk

Yurek Majcherczyk, who runs a small travel company with his wife, saw a pilgrimage trip to Rome he organized for October of 2001 nearly fall apart after the September 11 attacks. His group of 50 travelers shrank to 12. Among those still on trip: Two women who had lost loved ones when the towers fell.

So he wrote a personal letter to Pope John Paul II, begging, he says, for him to receive this group. The Pope complied, receiving the travelers in a special private audience, and comforting the two mothers.

"I'm so grateful for him, for what he did for these people," Majcherczyk told CBS News by phone from Italy. "I will never forget this."

The personal audience from the pope was one of the many examples of why Majcherczyk said he feels connected to Pope John Paul II. And one of the many reasons he felt he had to make the trip to St. Peter's Square for this Sunday's historic double canonization of both Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.

Majcherczyk is leading a group of 96 Americans on his pilgrimage, part of the wave of possibly millions from around the world expected to flood Vatican City. On Sunday both men will be officially become saints in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. For Majcherczyk, it's an official confirmation of what he's long felt about Pope John Paul II.

"In my opinion, he is a saint already. This is just a formality."

Majcherczyk, 61, was born in Poland under communist rule. And like many Polish Americans, he credits Pope John Paul II, "the Polish Pope," with the downfall of communism in his native country.

"When he visited Poland in 1979, he said to all the Polish people, 'Don't be afraid,'" Majcherczyk said. "In my opinion, this was the beginning of the end of the communists."

The group accompanying Majcherczyk hails from around the country. Some have Polish roots, Majcherczyk said, but many in the group don't.

"For all these people, the Pope changed their lives somehow."

Anthony Figueiredo, a director of The Pontifical North American College in Rome, says this kind of loyalty is indicative of how Pope John Paul II, who visited the U.S. seven times, affected many Americans and others from around the world -- Catholic and otherwise.

"He certainly reached people's hearts," Figueiredo said by phone from Vatican City.

"Both when he was first elected as Pope -- his youthfulness, his speech, the way he was able to get around, to attract people, young and old -- but then in his older age, he was a figure who offered great consolation to those who were suffering, to those who were sick, to those who were old, with a call to persevere."

Majcherczyk can list several connections to the Pope John Paul II. He met the Pope multiple times, including in private and in group audiences, before and during his papacy. At his first audience, Majcherczyk was frozen and remained speechless. At the next audience, he talked like a machine because he was afraid if he stopped, he would freeze.

Majcherczyk feels a strong spiritual connection to the Pope. He carried a picture of the Pope during his travels in South America, on dangerous white water kayaking expeditions, which he felt kept him and his group safe.

"It was incredible. We felt as if we were protected, like this picture was a shield to protect us."

The dual canonization has not been without controversy. Questions still linger surrounding Pope John Paul II's handling of the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the church during the end of his papacy -- questions Yurek said he felt he wasn't in a position to comment on.

Figueiredo said that the Church and the popes have been been clear: One instance of abuse is one too many. But he urged caution in rushing to judgement about how it reflects on Pope John Paul II. He said the scandals should be taken in the larger context of the good the church has done on a global level.

Outside of the scandal, neither of the two men being canonized were perfect, Figueiredo said. Which makes them such perfect candidates to be saints.

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A poster showing Pope Francis middle pope John Paul II (L) and Pope John XXIII (R), that will be canonized next Sunday, is seen in Borgo Pio street near the Vatican during the pontiff weekly general audience in St. Peter's square on April 23, 2014.
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
"That's the great thing about saints, because, saints were very ordinary people, like you and me. They had their faults, they had their blemishes, they had all their defects. But they always knew to get up again and again and again," said Figueiredo. He said the church wants followers to imitate saints rather than adore them. "It's hard to emulate someone who's perfect."

Figueiredo described the excitement and fervor that is already filling St. Peter's Square, and how it's now impossible to get a hotel room in Rome.

Majcherczyk will be there on Sunday with three flags: One American, one Polish, and one with the face of John Paul II. He's betting the latter will bring him the luck he needs for a front row seat.

"I hope I can be very happy man with all my group to be on the front of St. Peters Square and I have a big feeling that we will be there."
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    Alexander is a digital reporter for CBSNews.com. He previously worked as a multimedia reporter for POLITICO, where he covered the 2012 presidential campaign.

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