Did you ever meet Pope John Paul II? In Rome or during a papal trip? Do you have some great memory or story about that meeting? Perhaps you know someone who had an encounter – a moment that embraced the Pope’s sense of humor, his humanity, his kindness to newlyweds, his enthusiasm and love for young people, his love and concern for the suffering. If so, send me that story at: firstname.lastname@example.org
CELEBRATING POPE ST. JOHN PAUL II
Today, October 22 is the feast day of the much-loved St. John Paul II. Elected to the papacy on October 16, 1978, his pontificate was inaugurated six days later on October 22.
For almost 27 years, millions followed this robust, dynamic, peripatetic pontiff, the first non-Italian in well over 400 years, as they continued to do even when his health was in a clear state of decline. He traveled the globe, meeting tens of millions, and millions more came to Rome for a weekly audience, the Sunday Angelus, a special event, a papal Mass or for Holy Week liturgies.
For all who knew or met him, John Paul II was the Catholic Church’s equivalent of a rock star. He initiated World Youth Day and the young of the world flocked to hear their spiritual “grandfather” speak of the beauty of the faith, of vocations, of serving the Church that Jesus founded. And they answered in good numbers. It was always wonderful to hear the Vatican, in its post-WYD reports, announce the number of aspirants to the priesthood and religious life that came from a particular WYD.
John Paul’s clarity of teaching was a true and lasting gift to the Church. His writings on the defense of life, justice and human rights, his teachings on marriage, his penetrating analysis of human love and responsibility, his urging of peoples to create and embrace a “culture of life,” his look at the meaning and value of human suffering, his examination of man’s capacity for good and evil, his clear denunciation of the separation of faith and reason…I could go on and on!
I wrote about the John Paul papacy for many years for many publications, including the National Catholic Register (for which I was the first Rome bureau chief!). I covered his being shot in St Peter’s Square, his long convalescence and the trial of the Turk who tried to kill him, Mehmet Ali Agca. And many, many more events.
Then, one day, I was asked to work for the newly established Vatican Information Service, part of the Holy See Press Office. I was privileged beyond telling in those years, including being appointed a member of four Holy See delegations to United Nations conferences in Cairo, Copenhagen, Beijing and Istanbul.
I was privileged to meet Pope John Paul on a score of occasions in those years. And to make chocolate chip cookies for him on perhaps that many occasions!
Working for the Vatican in the final months, weeks and days of John Paul’s papacy and life was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and certainly one of the saddest.
My mind’s eye recalls hundreds of special moments during that historical papacy. And fortunately, the camera of L’Osservatore Romano photographer Arturo Mari captured a goodly number of those moments.
The first time I met Pope John Paul was for Mass in his chapel in December 10, 1985. Some day I will be telling that surprising story!
The last time was December 14, 2004, in the Apostolic Palace when Holy See Press Office Director Joaquin Navarro-Valls brought the entire staff to meet the Pope to mark Joaquin’s 20th anniversary as head of the press office. And lots of occasions in between!
That 2004 December morning, before we left for the papal audience, I learned how to say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in Polish. I wrote my phonetic version of the Polish words on a post-it note that I kept in my hand and when I met John Paul, I expressed my Christmas wishes in Polish. Navarro-Valls later told me that was the loveliest thing I could have done, saying I was the only one for whom the Pope raised his head (he had suffered mobility problems for months)!
Thanks for the memories, St. John Paul! Totus tuus!