CELEBRATING POPE ST. JOHN PAUL II

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: joanknows@gmail.com

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!

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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!

APRIL 2: A DAY, A MAN, A LIFE TO REMEMBER – APRIL 1, 2005: THE VIGIL SEEN AROUND THE WORLD

As I write in the second story I post here, St. John Paul II was a larger-than-life presence in my personal, professional and spiritual life. Thus, today, the 13th anniversary of his death, I wish to remember him, to commemorate this man whom so many call John Paul the Great by looking back – a glance back at what I felt and saw in his final days, accompanied by the words of some of the many people who wrote me in that time. The letters I post here are the proverbial ‘drop in a bucket’ of what I actually received.

A photo I took at the canonization –

Today, Easter Monday, April 2, 2018 – specifically this evening at 9:37 – marks the 13th anniversary of the death of Saint John Paul II. Those thirteen years at times seem very short and, at other times, very long. After all, we are in the second papacy since John Paul’s death, following eight years of our beloved Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis, entering his sixth year.


When I woke this morning, I reflected back on that cool April day in 2005, remembering with a vividness beyond telling how I spent the last days, the last hours of the Pope’s life. In fact, it’s as if it had happened just hours ago. After all, there are days, moments, perhaps even seconds, in one’s life that are so unique, so strongly seared into our hearts, minds and souls, that they truly are unforgettable.

I mentioned some of this in a column I wrote recalling the vigil, then the death of John Paul and featuring two of the many emails I wrote at the time – one to a niece, the other to a priest friend, that expressed my emotions and what I was witnessing (SEE BELOW). I went back to the files I have from April 2005, most notably email exchanges with family and friends, and today offer a very, very small number of the tsunami of emails I received:

From my niece Susan:
Hi again, I was just thinking…how lucky Grandpa is! He gets to meet the Pope now! And now when it is our time to go home, we will be greeted by both great men… Love and hugs…Susan

From my friend Laurie in Rome:
Dear, dear Joan,
I know how close he is to your heart! I can only imagine the loss. But, it seems to me that it is a time to rejoice! Few have lived lives better than this man. He has poured himself out for the good of others, for the good of the Church, and he is about to win the crown of victory! What a wonderful gift the Lord has given us in JPII! I spent the day in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at St. Peter’s, which was packed full from noon on. It was very prayerful and calm and not at all sad. Santo Spirito (church) was also packed (went for Divine Mercy.). I stayed in the Square until after the Rosary, but had to come home because I wasn’t dressed for the cold. I noticed that as many people were entering the Square as were leaving it! Most of those arriving at that hour were young people. I saw groups of young people with flags, boxes of votive candles and other supplies to spend the night with their Holy Father. You can be assured that you are in my prayers! I’ve actually been carrying my cell phone: … I would be happy to help in any way … I could pick up lunch! But most of all, I will pray. Hang in there! The Holy Father needs you!

From a friend in the U.S.:
A bright light went out in the world tonight but that bright light’s glow will shine in our hearts forever.

From Msgr D:
Dear Joan,
Please accept my sympathy on the loss of your Bishop, the Bishop of Rome, and our Holy Father, a great and holy man. While we mourn his loss to us, we rejoice that he now with the Saints in the abode of the Holy Trinity. Let us pray for him and our Church. We pray that, like the Apostles, he guides us still.

From Fred and Debbie,
Joan,
We love you and wish we were there to give you a big hug. We too are shedding tears for this Holy man who now is an intercessor for us in heaven.
I am assured God sits on your shoulder today for all your efforts for His Church. God bless you and our Church and the successor of Giovanni Paolo II!
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,

From Ann:
Dear Joanie:
….and so he went to his God, uttering Amen. It is truly the end of an era and how I will miss him. His utter kindness and gentle manner, coupled with his strength both physical, in his early Papacy, and later in his illnesses and suffering…what an example of dying with dignity. I particularly loved his love of children, the sick, his quick humor, his loyalty to the country of his birth and, of course, his deep and abiding Faith. I think of you, who knew him well and I offer my deepest sympathy. I know you feel as I do that he is now where we are all striving to end but on a day-to-day basis, you will, I am sure, miss him deeply. I”ve been crying on and off all day, but the rational “me” knows he is now at peace. There is no doubt in my mind that that soul is in heaven, no doubt at all. the angels took him, the Blessed Mother met him and her Son received him……Amen.

APRIL 1, 2005: THE VIGIL SEEN AROUND THE WORLD

Following are some of my reflections on the 10th anniversary of John Paul’s death. Included are photos I took on April 1, 2005, the night that turned out to be the vigil of John Paul’s death:

Having worked for the Vatican for so many years during his pontificate, and having met John Paul on at least 15 occasions, including Mass in his private chapel on three occasions, he was a larger-than-life presence in my personal, professional and spiritual life.

Thus, there is one week in April 2005 that I will never forget, and perhaps even a few days before that during Holy Week when it did seem apparent that we would not have John Paul the Great with us for much longer.

Two days, two anniversaries, come starkly to the forefront of my memories each year. I will never, ever forget April 1, the vigil of John Paul’s death, and then the following day and night, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast he instituted, when he died at 9:37 pm.

The vigil, if you will, probably began March 30th when rumors of the Pope’s demise that very day began to circulate. His last appearance at the window of his study was heartbreaking: John Paul could not speak because of the tracheotomy he had had and his frustration was evident – as was the quickly declining state of health to all who had eyes to see.

Hours were long at work (I was at the Vatican Information Service, a office within the Holy See Press Office) because we were, even if not openly admitting it at first, on a death watch. Medical bulletins and other matters came to my desk for translation so that the press office could hand the world’s media bulletins in English as well as Italian. Spanish also became available but English was the main language (the first or second language) of most the world’s media.

There had been many such medical bulletins over the months, especially when John Paul was admitted several times to Gemelli hospital and most especially when he had the tracheotomy. On his last ride home from the hospital, the van he was in passed by my building and I did take a photo —not available now as it is in my external hard drive in Rome.

CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE: https://joansrome.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/april-1-2005-the-vigil-seen-around-the-world/

WHERE WERE YOU 35 YEARS AGO?

May 13, a remarkable day in history –

Today, we mark the anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady at Fatima on May 13, 1917 to the three small shepherd children, Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta. Tune in for the centenary next year!

Also, it was 35 years ago today that John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square!

WHERE WERE YOU 35 YEARS AGO?

Do you know where you were 35 years ago today, May 13, 1981?

Well, let me tell you about that day, one I’ll never forget, a day the world, the Church will never forget. A day the world stood still.

I was on my way to St. Peter’s Square for the 5:00 pm general audience that Pope John Paul had just begun to preside. The weather had been very warm and the Vatican had moved the audiences from the hot noonday sun to a later time in the afternoon.

As I walked towards the square after having coffee in a small coffee bar nearby, I saw a group of Italian students, perhaps 30 of them, perhaps 10-years old, walking away from St. Peter’s Square with their teacher. They were not running so there was no reason to worry and I didn’t give them a second thought, except to wonder why they were leaving the papal audience, instead of attending it.

And then I heard a scream! A voice shouted in Italian, “they’ve shot the Pope.” My mind could not process those words together. My feet seemed nailed to the sidewalk, I was momentarily paralyzed – it may have been five seconds or less but I couldn’t move! When I finally absorbed the shock, I ran towards St. Peter’s Square where people were not quietly listening to what should have been a papal catechesis, rather they were going in all directions, asking each other what they heard, asking each other what they had seen. There were a lot of tears, so many people holding their heads, shaking their heads in disbelief, but always the tears.

My mind still could not conceive the words “they’ve shot the Pope.” It was unbelievable, unimaginable. Who in their right mind would want to shoot a man of such magnificent spirituality, such great teaching, such wisdom and humanity and humor, a man whose entire life was a life of prayer, of service, of dedication, of singular love for his Church love for his people, for all people.

Where was that life now – 5:30 in the afternoon of Wednesday, May 13? Had it ended? Was it hanging in the balance? Was it possible to go from joy to sorrow in only a nanosecond?

As I was running towards the square to see what had happened, one of the more amazing things happened. I entered St. Peter’s Square and asked in as many languages as I knew what people had heard and what they had seen. At a certain point, a very tall American priest, with an obviously worried expression on his face, came up and asked me if I knew the whereabouts of the two women in his pilgrimage group who had been shot along with Pope John Paul!

Naturally, I was absolutely floored and asked him their names and if he thought they had been taken to a hospital. To this day, 35 years later, I remember those names: Ann Odre was a senior citizen in Father’s group and Rose Hall was the wife of a military man who had just come from – or was perhaps going to – Germany to see him. I made inquiries and found that both women had been taken to the nearby Santo Spirito hospital where, a day or two later, I visited Ann Odre.

Obviously the confusion in the Square surpassed understanding. And, in a way, the relative silence surpassed understanding. There was probably more silence than there should have been with a crowd of that size but people were praying, people were not talking, so many were struck dumb by the idea someone would want to shoot a Pope.

John Paul of course became the focus of everyone’s attention: the faithful in the square, the people of Rome whose bishop had just been shot and, thanks to the media, people around the world. As a member of the media, I ran back to the press office to tell my colleagues what I had learned. I worked for a weekly newspaper in Rome at the time – the International Daily American – and also wrote a weekly column for the National Catholic Register as the Rome bureau chief. Working for a weekly it was tough to have a scoop but what I had discovered in the square, especially the information about the two American women, had to be shared with all of my fellow journalists.

For hours we were on the phone. We all called our contacts to ask who might have been in the square, what they saw, what they heard. Bit by bit, information was pieced together. We learned that a man with a gun, had raised it, pointed it at the Pope and fired shots and was immediately wrestled to the ground by a nun. The man, we later discovered, was a Turkish citizen named Ali Agca who was immediately taken into custody. I later covered his trial in Rome.

No one even thought of leaving the press office: Throughout the evening, and into the first hours of the new day, we all had our eyes on the television sets in the press office. There was nothing at that time like today’s social media – no Internet, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and videos made with cell phones (no cell phones at that time, either!), iPads, etc., so we relied on our land line phones and Italian television.

It was an anxious evening, unique in my life as a journalist. The hours dragged on and on, restaurants closed and yet no one had had dinner. At best, some colleagues went to a few coffee bars before they closed to get a sandwich and some coffee for what we knew would be a long night. We all knew that no matter what we were writing, the final story line could not be written until we heard from the Gemelli hospital if the Pope had survived his surgery or if indeed a final line have been written in the life of Pope John Paul.

Given God’s great love – and surely his Mother Mary’s love as well – for this special man, given Pope John Paul’s belief in Divine Mercy and his unshakeable belief in Divine Providence, we all received the gift of a Pope who survived and a long papacy, following this potentially fatal day.

I got to bed in the wee small hours of the morning after dictating my story on the phone to the Register, based at the time in Los Angeles. I was exhausted when I went to bed and only slept a few hours because all of us were anxious to return to work the next morning and find out what had happened to the Pope overnight.

You all know the rest of the story: Pope John Paul survived, had a long recovery period and eventually had other surgeries: There would be another 24 years of a fruitful pontificate by a traveling Pope, a Pope who wrote documents and poetry, a Pope who influenced the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

As I write these words 35 years later, that Pope is now Saint John Paul II.

Now, do you remember where you were 35 years ago today, May 13, 1981, feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the gentle lady whose loving hand, as John Paul said, deflected the bullet that could have killed him.

I met the Holy Father many times over the years and have a album of photos. Here are two of my favorites:

World Youth Day in Denver, August 1993 –

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Reading at Christmas Eve Mass, December 24, 1993

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