By Jesse Robitaille
A special postmark issued by Canada Post earlier this fall marks the birth centenary of Saint John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century.
Available since September, the postmark is based on a design submitted to Canada Post by philatelist Anthony Sales, an avid collector of John Paul II stamps and a member of the Knights of Columbus Council in Richmond, B.C. Together with a souvenir cover also designed and produced by Sales, the postmark was originally planned to be issued this May, during a 180-frame exhibition commemorating the former pope’s birth centenary; however, organizers were forced to cancel due to COVID-19.
“There were several attempts at rescheduling the exhibition, but eventually it was decided to cancel for the year and review to possibly holding it in 2021 or later,” said Sales, who decided to go ahead with the postmark and souvenir cover.
The Sept. 19-dated postmark depicts John Paul II and the Minor Basilica of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the market town of Wadowice, Poland, where the well-travelled pope – whose given name is Karol Wojtyla – began his spiritual journey. The double dates “1920-2020” are shown at the top with “RICHMOND BC” in a banner near the bottom.
“As Canadians, we should be proud that John Paul II was the first and only pontiff to set foot on Canadian soil,” said Sales, who added the former pope visited Canada three times – first in 1984, then in 1987 and finally in 2002.
In 1984, to mark the pope’s arrival, Canada Post issued a set of two stamps (Scott #1030-31) celebrating the inaugural papal visit.
A World Youth Day stamp (SC #1957) was also issued by Canada in 2002, when the pope visited Toronto to speak at the Catholic youth festival he established in 1985.
The postmark marking John Paul II’s birth centenary is Canada Post’s fifth papal postmark, according to Sales (two of the more recent postmarks celebrated the former pope’s 2011 beatification and 2014 canonization).
On Sept. 18, Sales’ souvenir cover was unveiled by Archbishop Michael Miller at the Karol Wojtyla Hall of Vancouver’s St. John Paul II Pastoral Centre.
The in-person unveiling included a small gathering with members of the Knights of Columbus, former pastor Monsignor Dennis Luterbach and present pastor Father Tom Smith.
“On that very same day, 36 years ago on Sept. 18, 1984, Pope John Paul II visited British Columbia and celebrated Mass with 200,000 enthusiastic Catholics at Abbotsford International airport,” said Sales, who added the pope left Vancouver on Sept. 19 before venturing to other parts of Canada. “It is no mere coincidence, but perhaps St. John Paul lent us a hand in lining up all these dates. It was a joy to honour him by celebrating his birth centenary by unveiling this special souvenir cover.”
In his remarks, Miller added the philatelic tribute was “a novel and creative way to honour the birth centenary of the secondary patron of Vancouver – one of the very great men, not just popes, of the 20th century.”
Pope John Paul II’s more than 26-year pontificate – from October 1978-April 2005 – was the third longest in papal history.
“As part of his effort to promote greater understanding between nations and between religions, he undertook numerous trips abroad, traveling far greater distances than had all other popes combined, and he extended his influence beyond the church by campaigning against political oppression and criticizing the materialism of the West,” wrote Bill Blakemore for an online article published this year by Encyclopedia Britannica.
“He also issued several unprecedented apologies to groups that historically had been wronged by Catholics, most notably Jews and Muslims. His unabashed Polish nationalism and his emphasis on nonviolent political activism aided the Solidarity movement in communist Poland in the 1980s and ultimately contributed to the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.”