I was sitting in a little restaurant around the corner from the Vatican a couple of nights ago with some visitors from the United States whom I had just taken on a Vatican tour.  At the end of our meal, the owner of the restaurant came over to me and asked me a question in hurried Italian: “Did you hear what date Pope John Paul II will be beatified?”

I replied that I did not know. I knew that Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Prefect for the Congregation of Saints, had a scheduled audience with Pope Benedict XVI, in which it was speculated that he was going to present the definitive documentation of a confirmed miracle — a Parkinson’s healing no less. And I knew that traditionally upon the confirmation of a miracle, the Pope declares that the venerable man or woman is to be beatified at the earliest proper date. But I had not heard the outcome of the meeting.

So I assumed that the Italian man was asking me about the visit of Cardinal Amato and Pope Benedict XVI, to which I replied that I had not heard anything. The man retorted, engaging in all of the stereotypical Italian exasperated gesticulation we have seen pantomimed so many times, “Listen to the radio, Padre: they announced that he will be beatified! But I did not hear the date!”

I looked at the people with whom I was dining in exhilaration and translated the man’s words for them, whereupon we all rejoiced together. Divine Mercy Sunday: the feast established by our late beloved Pontiff, the feast upon which he made his own way to the font of mercy, was to be the feast of his own beatification.

The first reaction that I had after hearing this joyful news was elation, and then I realized something quite wonderful: the beatification of John Paul II marks the first (but hopefully not the last) time a person whom I have seen with my own eyes has been definitively declared part of that blessed union in heaven. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it is truly an extraordinary thing.

To have personally encountered (albeit from a distance) on this earth someone who is held up by the Church as a model of virtue and as one of the blessed who has navigated the treacherous waters of temptation here on earth, showing us one way to live the revelation of the Father in our lives, is an exceptional grace. Not only have I read many of his words, but I have also seen his face: I have looked into the face of the suffering servant, and I have seen that in the midst of great sacrifice one finds the purest love.

No one who encountered John Paul II, whether in person, or in St. Peter’s Square from a distance, as I once had the opportunity to do, or even on television, left the encounter unchanged and without an impression that there was something remarkable about the man.

John Paul II is a sign and proof that sanctity is possible: it is possible in our world, in our culture, in this set of political circumstances that suggests to faithful Catholics over and over again that something has gone wrong with the world. In spite of the fact that something is terribly wrong with the world and our culture seems to progressively grow more and more sick and sinful, John Paul II shows all of us that holiness is possible, that hope is possible and that to manifest the love of God in the world is not only the best possible tactic for combating the deterioration of culture, but it is in fact the only possible tactic.

But mostly his beatification is a challenge. To meet a saint is different than to hear about one. I love Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and I am inspired by her life. However, I never met her in person; I never saw her personally. I did see John Paul II. And I’ll be honest: it stings a little. Maybe even more than a little.

The simple — and tragic — fact is that I am not a saint. Sometimes I wonder if I am even trying. No one would look at my life and declare that it manifested “heroic virtue,” as Pope Benedict declared of John Paul II. Not everyone is called to be a canonized saint, but we are all called to be saints, whether recognized by the world or not. And I’m not there. And I need to work harder and pray harder and be more open to the grace of God.

The news of John Paul II’s beatification places my life and efforts in strong contrast to his, and I can hear the words of the prophet Daniel: “You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Dan 5:27).

To not become a saint is tragic, a personal tragedy for which each of us is responsible. What makes a saint is openness to grace and recourse to the sacraments. Without confession and the Eucharist, John Paul II could never have become a saint. He never would have made it — the road is too difficult to travel alone. His most heroic virtue was that of perseverance: no matter what happened, no matter what the struggle, he remained close to the sacraments through his entire life, and little by little he was strengthened by grace until finally his ultimate struggle was laid upon him. It was during that final struggle that he showed the world what it is to live and to die, and his inspiration remains in the living memory of billions of people.

But more personally important: he inspired me. To consider the life of John Paul II makes me want to be a better man; it makes me want to be a holy priest; it makes me want to love the way that God loves. To experience this desire necessarily entails a reflection on that which I lack, but it opens the possibility of accomplishing that which is possible: to become a saint, to do the will of God in all things at all times.

I’ve always known it was possible; now I believe it is possible.