April 26, 2011 // Uncategorized

Memories of Pope John Paul II

I have been asked to write about my memories of the soon-to-be beatified Pope John Paul II for this week’s issue of Today’s Catholic. Reflecting on my memories of this great Pope has been an occasion of grace for me and fills me with thanksgiving for this incredible man, a faithful and courageous disciple of Jesus Christ, a holy priest and bishop, an amazing Pope.

I remember watching his election (October 16, 1978) on television while a seminarian at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. The first election of a non-Italian Pope in over 400 years surprised the world. I was 21 years old. Little could I have imagined the effect this new Pope would have on my life as a seminarian, as a priest, and as a bishop. I was immediately taken by his energy and youth, his charisma and strength. I knew that he was just what the Church needed at that time in history. He brought hope for a new springtime of the Church.

The next year, I was sent to Rome for my theological studies. From 1979 to 1983 as a seminarian and from 1985 to 1988 as a priest, I lived and studied in Rome. Those years were a grace-filled time of my life, most especially because of the one I came to admire and to love as truly a “Holy Father.” I don’t know how many of his Masses and audiences I attended, probably over a hundred. I felt like a disciple at the feet of his master, listening and soaking in his homilies and speeches. I think I learned more from Pope John Paul II than I did from my university theology classes. His homilies, encyclicals, apostolic letters and exhortations fill more than a bookshelf in my residence. I turn to his writings often for wisdom and knowledge.

But Pope John Paul II is not being beatified for his intellectual gifts and accomplishments. Nor is he being beatified for his amazing pontificate: his apostolic visits around the world, his role in the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, his influence in world affairs, his charismatic leadership, or for any number of accomplishments during his 27-year pontificate. He is being canonized because of his holiness and heroic virtue, his saintly life and death. The papal biographer, George Weigel, said it well when asked “what is the essence of John Paul’s holiness?” He replied: “Radical discipleship. Everything Karol Wojtyla did — as priest, poet, philosopher, playwright, bishop, father of Vatican II, Pope and world statesman — was an expression of his discipleship.”

I had the honor and privilege of personally meeting Pope John Paul II six times during my years in Rome. The first time was on February 22, 1980, the feast of the Chair of Peter (also George Washington’s birthday), when Pope John Paul visited our seminary, the North American College. It was a rather brief encounter, but one that touched me deeply. He greeted every one of the seminarians personally after he celebrated Mass for us in our chapel and then had dinner with us in our refectory.

A few months later, I had the privilege of serving Mass for the Holy Father in Saint Peter’s Square on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. I will never forget the time three other seminarians and I shared with Pope John Paul in the sacristy before the Mass. The Holy Father was very interested in learning about our vocations, our families and backgrounds. Since it was the feast of Corpus Christi, the Holy Father spoke to us about the gift of the Holy Eucharist and shared with us his personal experience of celebrating this feast in Poland with beautiful Corpus Christi processions through the streets. I thought at the time that he seemed a little homesick. And then he spoke to us as a spiritual father and advised us to always keep the Eucharist at the center of our lives as seminarians and later as priests. I felt he was giving a little homily or spiritual direction just for us before we went out into the square and the thousands of people gathered there for the Mass.

Before vesting, the Holy Father knelt down to pray. This had a profound impact on me. It was evident that he was in deep prayer. It went on for several minutes. In fact, one of the papal M.C.’s had to go over to ask him to put on the vestments since we would have been late for the start of Mass if Pope John Paul continued in his personal prayer. Later, I would also experience the Holy Father at prayer. I am convinced that he was a mystic, profoundly connected to God when he prayed. After that very personal time with the Holy Father, we processed into Saint Peter’s Square for Mass. At the end of Mass, we processed with the Holy Father carrying the Eucharist around Saint Peter’s Square for the Corpus Christi procession.

After the Mass, we again spoke with the Holy Father. He said, in our presence, to the M.C.’s that next year he wanted to have the Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Rome. I remembered his words to us about Corpus Christi processions in Poland. He wanted to bring Jesus in the Holy Eucharist into the world, not just around Saint Peter’s Square! I remembered this and wondered whether the Holy Father’s wishes would be followed the next year. Sadly, it was not to be. In May 1981, Pope John Paul was shot and nearly killed in Saint Peter’s Square. He was in the hospital for Corpus Christi 1981.

I was ordained a deacon in April, 1982. As Providence would have it, I was asked to serve as a deacon for Pope John Paul at the Mass for Corpus Christi that June. This time it was celebrated at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. And yes, the Holy Father’s wishes were granted. At the end of Mass, we processed with the Blessed Sacrament through the streets of Rome, from the Basilica of Saint John Lateran to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major. Before the Mass and procession, I was again with the Holy Father in the sacristy. This time there was a lot of commotion. The police and security guards were trying to convince Pope John Paul that they should surround him during the procession, that it was a dangerous route, with all the buildings on either side of the street where snipers could easily be hiding. It was just a year earlier that he had been nearly assassinated. But the Holy Father stood his ground and said no. He told them that why have a Eucharistic procession with police all around him, blocking the people’s view of the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament. The Holy Father prevailed. The only ones by his side during the procession were us deacons who carried the canopy over him and the Blessed Sacrament. I could not help thinking that we might want bullet-proof vests under our dalmatics! I cannot describe the joy and excitement I felt walking next to the Holy Father carrying the Eucharist on that route through the streets of Rome. And nearby some cardinals also walked in the procession, the one closest to us none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger!

I realize this column is already getting long so I will have to condense my other experiences. I served Mass for Pope John Paul on December 31, 1980, and I served as a deacon for him on December 31, 1982. Both of these Masses were in the Church of the Gesu, the main church of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in Rome. Saint Ignatius Loyola is buried in a beautiful side altar in that church. Those Masses on New Year’s Eve were Masses of thanksgiving for the blessings of the past year. At the end of Mass, all sang the “Te Deum” in thanksgiving. On both occasions, I was blessed to have some minutes with the Holy Father before and after Mass.

My last one-on-one experience with Pope John Paul was a week before returning home for my priesthood ordination in 1983. I had brought my new paten and chalice, gifts from my parents, to the Vatican and asked if the Pope would bless them and be the first to use them before I left for home. It just so happened that the Holy Father was celebrating a special Holy Year Mass for the Sick in Saint Peter’s Square that week. Pope John Paul used my paten and chalice for the Mass. I distributed Holy Communion at the Mass and, afterwards, thanked the Holy Father and received his blessing before coming home. Though I would return to Rome for further studies two years later, I did not know that at the time.

Fast forward! I was one of the last bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II before he died. When I returned to Rome as a new bishop in 2005, at an annual conference for all the new bishops of the world, we concelebrated Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica. At the end of Mass, we processed down into the crypt by the tomb of Pope John Paul II. I thought of his advice to me 25 years earlier, when I was a server at his Corpus Christi Mass. I thought of his holy example. Needless to say, tears of gratitude flowed down my face. Blessed John Paul II, thank you and pray for us.

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