I have waited a long time for this day, 9 and half years to be exact! This morning I celebrated Mass on the Feast Day of SAINT Pope John Paul II. He was canonized by Pope Francis earlier this year (Divine Mercy Sunday), and today is the first time his feast day is celebrated. Oct 22 commemorates the day he was installed as the 264th Successor of St. Peter! On this great feast, I would like to share a personal reflection.
I will start in summer of 2002. I was preparing to head to Toronto for World Youth Day. I can’t begin to express how excited I was to finally be able to see Pope John Paul II in person, the man who not only had such a tremendous impact on me personally, but in fact on the entire world.
I had heard so many stories of people who had the blessed opportunity to be in the presence of this saintly Polish Pope, of how it had changed their lives and moved them to become better Catholics. Now it was my turn to see the pope. Even frail and barely able to walk, he still had the capacity to captivate the crowds and preach the Gospel with such vigor and enthusiasm.
As providence would have it, my being able to see Pope John Paul II in Toronto was not meant to be. The week of World Youth Day was the same week that one of my closest friends from college was having his fifth open heart surgery. He was given a thirty percent chance of survival. Even though this could be my only chance to see the pope, I knew where I needed to be. In case you are wondering, my friend made it though okay and was actually ordained a Franciscan priest last summer.
As providence would also have it, I was in fact able to see the Pope the following summer. It was late August of 2003 and I had just arrived in Rome to begin my seminary studies. The first Sunday in Rome my classmates and I traveled to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence. I remember the feeling that overcame me as he was brought to the balcony. He was in a wheelchair and his physical health was continuing to decline, but there was so much life in him and those gathered were well aware that they were in the presence of a living saint.
Almost exactly a year later, I was able to travel to Castel Gandolfo again, this time with my bishop who was in town for his Ad Lima meeting with the pope. This time, we were able to be brought into the residence and meet the pope personally and where I was able to kneel before him and kiss his ring. I remember thinking of how unbelievable it was to be in the presence of the Vicar of Christ on earth and the leader of the universal Church. What made it so much more special was that I was there with our Bishop, the leader of our own local Church at the same time. I remember thinking to myself, here I am just a kid from Fall River and now I am kissing the pope’s ring.
It has become a papal tradition that those meeting the pope receive a rosary from him. Every time I pray the rosary with those beads I remember those wonderful few moments that I was able to be in the presence of a saint! I wouldn’t normally carry those rosary beads with me out of fear of losing them, but they were with me on the night that John Paul passed from this world into eternal life.
I remember it like it was yesterday. My friends and I were standing in St. Peter’s square that night the pope died. We all knew that this moment would eventually come, but it was a reality that we didn’t want to face. You have to remember that my classmates and I were all born after his election in 1978 and he was the only pope that we knew. Saying farewell to him and seeing a new pope was not going to be easy, though Joseph Ratzinger being elected his successor made it much easier!
Shortly after 9:30pm, the lights went on in the papal apartments that could be scene from St. Peter’s square and a bishop came into the square to announce that the pope had died. At first, there was a tremendous silence that came over the huge crowd that had gathered in the square to pray for the pope. It was like time had stood still as the “death bell” began to toll. All of a sudden, a huge eruption of applause broke out. It all made sense – the applause was a sign of both our gratitude to God for giving us such a faithful and holy leader and also an expression of faith that God had called home his good and faithful servant.
The days leading up to his funeral were also most memorable. The streets were packed with people from all over the world, young and old, Catholic and non-Catholic who wanted to see Pope John Paul one last time as he lay in state in St. Peter’s Basilica. People waited in lines for upwards of 16 hours just to pass by their beloved pope for just a few seconds.
Huge video screens were set up along the street so that those waiting in line could watch video clips of John Paul’s extraordinary life and papacy. I remember sitting there on the curb watching scenes from different parts of his pontificate. There were images of his early days as pope when he was young and energetic. There were other images of his final years, unable to stand and struggling to speak. The same thought kept running through my mind – what an incredible man this was!
Pope John Paul II provided us a great example and a tremendous witness to hope. He showed us how to live holy lives, he explained the faith to us and brought it to all corners of the world, and he showed us how to place our trust in the Lord, especially in the midst of suffering. May we never forget Saint Pope John Paul the Great!