The newly sainted pope accompanies me still
- in Vatican City –
Permit, if you will indulge me, a lapse into autobiography. That was, after all, one of the signal achievements of St. John Paul II, that his biography became part of so many autobiographies. The story of his life shaped the story of so many lives.
In St. Peter’s Square on April 27, I was early, arriving at about 6:30 a.m. for the canonization Mass. With more than three hours to kill before the Mass began I brought along some reading, Rich in Mercy, the Holy Father’s 1980 encyclical on the mercy of God, which seemed fitting enough for Divine Mercy Sunday. But even that did not exhaust all the time so I had about an hour where I had little else to do but look up at the portrait of John Paul hanging on the front of St. Peter’s.
I know it well, as I have the same image hanging in my rectory on Wolfe Island. It was taken by the same photographer who took the photograph of the sacred painting I chose for my ordination holy card, so I felt a personal connection. And then it hit me: John Paul has accompanied me at historic moments for the last 20 years of my life.
In 1992, I read a book for an undergraduate course I was taking by an author unknown to me at the time, George Weigel. The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism awakened me to the history-shaping role of Pope John Paul II. In turn, it led me to how John Paul himself explained the defeat of communism in his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus.
In 1994, I spent three weeks in Krakow on a summer seminar on Centesimus Annus, taught by the same Weigel, along with his colleagues Michael Novak and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. We visited all the principal Wojtyla sites, and John Paul became an almost tangible presence in my spiritual life. My priestly vocation began to grow.
In January 1995, I arrived in Manila for post-graduate study on economic development. The World Youth Day was only a few days after I arrived, and I witnessed John Paul before perhaps the largest crowd in the history of humanity. More important, I heard him speak about vocations according to the theme for that year’s WYD: As the Father has sent me, so I send you — the words of the Risen Jesus to His first priests. In the subsequent months, my priestly vocation was confirmed.
In July 1995, on the Feast of St. Joachim and Anna, I met John Paul for the first time at his morning Mass at Castel Gandolfo, where our Krakow group had reconvened. I will never forget sitting beside Novak and listening to the Holy Father and him sing the “Ave Verum Corpus” after Holy Communion.
In 1998, by now a seminarian in Rome, I attended his 20th anniversary as pope, which he chose to celebrate by canonizing Edith Stein, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross.
The following spring I was able to attend his morning Mass again, and this time to present to him my own parents. That photograph, of the Holy Father greeting my parents also hangs in my home, a reminder of the three great influences that God gave me to guide my life.
In 1999, as seminarian-journalist, I was present, just a few feet away from the Holy Father, as he opened all four Holy Doors for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. I was there when he came to the window of the Apostolic Palace at midnight on New Year’s Eve to welcome the new millennium.
I accompanied him on the papal plane to Fatima for the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima in May 2000, when he beatified the shepherd children Francisco and Jacinta, and gave thanks to the Blessed Mother for permitting him to fulfill the prophecy made by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Primate of Poland, during the conclave of 1978: “If you are elected, you will lead the Church into the third millennium.” I was there when John Paul was able to say, on the anniversary of his assassination attempt, that he had done what the Lord had set for him to do.
In 2002, a few weeks before my priestly ordination, I returned to Krakow to spiritually prepare. I was able to visit two places to ask for the graces I would need — the cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz, and the chapel in the residence of the archbishop of Krakow, where John Paul himself was ordained a priest in 1946.
A week after my ordination, John Paul came to Toronto for World Youth Day, and I remember vividly the moving words he said about the priesthood in a difficult time, which made priests — those brand new like me and those already old — weep.
Then came the final occasions. In 2003, his 25th anniversary in Rome, which he chose to celebrate by beatifying Mother Teresa. In 2005 it was his death and his final WYD — the spontaneous one that took place in the streets of Rome after he died. Those were unforgettable days in Rome, and I broadcast his funeral, which remains the greatest public occasion of this generation.
Then came yearly visits to Krakow, where I now teach in that same summer seminar. In 2011, I broadcast his beatification. In 2012, again with my parents, and George Weigel, I celebrated my 10th anniversary as a priest by offering the Holy Mass in that same chapel in the residence of the archbishop of Krakow. Except now, the archbishop was Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul’s longtime secretary, and the chapel had relics of Blessed John Paul present.
So I had to come for the canonization. John Paul has guided almost my entire adult life. In the Square, I was a bit nostalgic, as this would be the last great John Paul event. Yes, yet he accompanies me still, and the whole Church, no longer our shepherd by his election, but as a patron saint by our choice.