In this second reflection on the beatification of Pope John Paul II, written and submitted in connection with the observance of his beatification, which Bishop Kevin Rhoades had selected to be observed in all Masses in our parishes the weekend of Oct. 15-16, we are confronted with the reasons for his beatification. First of all, what are not the reasons. It is not because so many considered him instrumental in the freedom that came to Eastern Europe. It is not because of the great success of the World Youth Days founded during his pontificate. Nor is it the fact that he visited so many countries. If he is canonized; that is, declared a saint, as so many hope, it is because of evidence of an extraordinary, indeed heroic, holiness.
That is what Pope John Paul II said to Bishop John Roach, the president of our conference, when the pope said he intended to visit every bishop in the world during their “ad limina” visit. He took literally the words of Christ to Peter that “you must strengthen your brothers” — “confirma fraters.” It was an admonition for Peter to confirm and strengthen the other apostles, and was the theological basis for the Holy Father’s intention to spend time with every bishop in the world.
He did four things during our week in Rome. First, we would concelebrate with him early one morning, finding him always kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament when we entered his chapel. In the early days, he gave us a talk on various pastoral questions. Then each diocesan bishop would have about 10 minutes with him, archbishops and cardinals a bit longer.
Finally, our delegation would be divided into two groups for a delightful lunch. It was amazing at these meetings how much he knew about each diocese and about our country. I recall him telling us about his visit to Columbia, S.C. “Eighty thousand people praying with the pope,” he said, “in a place only five percent Catholic. You would not have that in Europe. It is because you do not have the virulent atheism in the United States that is common in Europe.”
His devotion to priests
Always evident at these lunches and in the letter he wrote every Holy Thursday to the priests of the world was his devotion to priests, and this love for priests and for the priesthood was a sign of his own holiness. His biographer said of him, “He has once again made the priesthood a great adventure.” I asked him once at one of these luncheons if he had a message for our priests. His reply: “Tell your priests the greatest day for the pope was not the day he was made bishop or pope. Rather, it was the day he was ordained a priest and was able to say Mass for the people.” I often thought of that: “… was able to say Mass for the people.” I think of it often now, as a retired bishop. The beauty of the priesthood. Going into my neighboring St. John’s Parish and saying Mass for the people, saying Mass at the Mother Theodore Chapel at noontime for large crowds and also hearing confessions. It is reaffirmation of what the pope said. Indeed I remember asking my father as he was getting closer to death: which was the more important day to him — the day I was made a priest or a bishop? He did not hesitate to reply, “The day you were made a priest.” Also, John Paul II was not clerical. From his earliest days, lay people were close to him and influenced his spirituality and prayer. In his teaching, he always linked the ministerial priesthood to the priesthood of Christ and the priesthood of the baptized. The ordained priest is at the service of the priesthood of the baptized (Vatican II).
Always a place for prayer and also a sense of humor
As we would leave the luncheons, we would all go into the chapel to pray briefly before the Blessed Sacrament. I had the good fortune to walk out with him once; and I said to him simply, “You have helped all of us to be better priests and bishops.” He replied, “Well, the pope should be good for something!” At another time I happened to have been standing with him and I said to him in my best Latin, “Tu es bonus pastor.” (You are a good shepherd). “No,” he said, “Ego sum inutilis servus.” (I am a useless servant.) A citation from the Gospel.
The Pope’s Prayer
We celebrated his beatification and look forward to his canonization because he was holy. Holiness grows through prayer, and it never grows without it.
This was grasped most beautifully by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, preaching at a Mass celebrated on the fifth anniversary on the death of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict made clear where he believed Pope John Paul II found the source of that strength which enabled him to do hard things, things which often brought him suffering.
“In his homily for the 25th anniversary of his pontificate, he confided that he had felt echoing in his soul, at the moment of his election, Jesus’ question to Peter: “Do you love me? Do you love me more than these? (Jn 21: 15-16); and he added: “Every day that same dialogue between Jesus and Peter takes place in my heart. In spirit, I focus on the benevolent gaze of the Risen Christ. Although He knows of my human frailty, He encourages me to answer confidently, like Peter: “Lord, You know everything; You know that I love You.” (Jn 21: 17). And then He invites me to take on the responsibilities that He Himself has entrusted to me” (Homily, 16 October 2003; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 22, page 3). Pope Benedict adds: “These words are laden with faith and love, the love of God, that conquers everything!” (L’Osservatore Romano English edition 13, March 31, 2010, page 3).
Today we would call this according to the Benedictine formula, “lectio divina,” a method of biblical prayer in which we grasp that in the Scriptures we are speaking not only of a past event, but a present event in which Jesus Christ is speaking to us and we are speaking to Him. It is the Holy Spirit within us that prompts us to accept much of the New Testament as a conversation with Christ. Followers of St. Ignatius have a similar basis often referred to as a composition of place, placing oneself in this case, beside the lake with Christ and the Apostles, and hearing Him speaking to us.
Could Pope John Paul II some day be a Doctor of the Church? It is certainly possible; for so many people, and I certainly include myself, he has been a teacher of spiritual theology and his writing continues to guide us.
It was a joy following Bishop Rhoades’ decision, to offer Mass and confer the sacrament of Confirmation recently at St. Anthony Parish, South Bend, and to hear addressed to myself and to all present the words addressed to Peter, “Do you love me more than these do?”
Let us pray to Blessed John Paul II for our parish, our diocese and our Church.
The best news. Delivered to your inbox.
Subscribe to our mailing list today.