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Shaking the hand that shook hands with a saint
Father Joseph Illo, right, shakes hands with the recently canonized St. Pope John Paul II. The occasion took place in 1986 before Christmas Mass that year when he was a seminarian in Rome. - photo by Photo courtesy Father Joseph Illo

The color photograph shows a younger Pope John Paul II and an equally younger Father Joseph Illo. The former associate pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Manteca and former pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Modesto and now senior chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College in Southern California was not yet an ordained priest at the time. He was a seminarian in Rome.

According to the caption of the photograph in Father Illo’s blog, the meeting showing the late Great Pope JPII shaking the young American seminarian’s hand took place just before Christmas Mass at St. Peter’s in 1986.

That picture came to mind while attending the 9 a.m. Mass at Holy Spirit Church in Fremont. Before the start of the service, Father Mathew Vellankal, the church pastor, reminded the faithful of the day’s high water mark event taking place on the other side of the globe. On that day, two of the Catholic church’s late popes of the modern era are being canonized and elevated to sainthood — Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. The day also happened to be Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast that comes after Easter Sunday.

Father Mat happily announced that he had the privilege of shaking hands with the pope from Poland when he was alive. With that, he invited his parishioners to come to him after the Mass and shake the hand that shook the hand of a saint. His comment set the celebratory and happy atmosphere of the service. It lightened the heavy heart I was feeling that morning. Three hours earlier, at Washington Hospital a few blocks away, I said goodbye to my Dad for the last time.

I envied Father Illo and Father Mat who received the blessing of having had a really close and personal encounter with the late great pontiff. However, I reminded myself that I was also blessed in a way because I have had the opportunity to see Pope John Paul in person — twice — during his visit to the United States in the 1980s. I was there when he offered Mass at Laguna Seca. The following day, I saw him again when he offered Mass at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Both times, I was with parishioners of St. Anthony’s Church in Manteca who went to the Laguna Seca race track in Monterey and the ball park in San Francisco — not all of them went to both places — riding in chartered buses.

Another historical figure in the Catholic church that is awaiting canonization is the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, now Blessed Teresa, who ministered to the poorest of the poor in India. It was St. Pope John Paul II who beatified the nun who founded the now international Sisters of Mercy.

When Mother Teresa is canonized — that historic event is not a matter of if but when — Father Illo will then be able to say that he has shaken hands with two saints. His encounter with Mother Teresa was not just a passing incident unlike his meeting with the canonized pontiff. Father Illo actually went and ministered with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta alongside Mother Teresa. He took the trip during the time he was serving at St. Anthony of Padua in Manteca. During the summer month he was in Calcutta, he also offered Mass for the Blessed nun and the other nuns in their convent, after which he went out to the streets of Calcutta to help carry and bring the dying into Mother Teresa’s ashram, or the House of the Destitute and Dying, where they were cleaned and fed and given love and kindness before they breathed their last.

A picture of the diminutive nun, who was called a living saint while she was alive, and Father Illo is also on his blog. 

I did shake the hand of Father Mat that shook the hand of a saint. I will make sure to do the same thing the next time I meet Father Illo.


To contact Rose Albano Risso, email or call 209.249.3536.