Today’s big news: Pope John Paul II will be beatified — the last step before canonization and sainthood — May 1.
When I arrived in Rome to study in 2004, seeing Pope John Paul II was on my can’t-miss list — along with eating gelato, climbing the Spanish Steps like Audrey Hepburn, and touring the Coliseum. I admit I thought of him a bit like a tourist destination or photo op, forgetting in the glitz the spiritual father he was meant to be.
That changed when the opportunity came. The timing couldn’t have been more symbolic. I was with classmates ascending from St. Peter’s Scavi, the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica where St. Peter himself was buried. Earlier, we had wound through the ancient cemetery, through history, to the very bones of Peter, the first pope, upon whom Christ said he would build his church. The papacy was alive to me in a way it never had been before.
An hour before, the pope was a gilded symbol of Catholicism in Rome, miles, light years even, away from my life in Minnesota. But the tour awakened the reality of the papacy — the pope was the successor to Peter, the shepherd of the church, my spiritual father to whom I should listen.
As we made our way back to the daylight, the tombs of centuries of popes lined the halls, speaking to this unbroken chain back to Peter, back to Christ. Above us, through grates that led into the basilica, we could hear the murmured rhythms of a liturgy in progress. Suddenly, our guide stopped and turned around. “Shh!” She held her finger to her lips and pointed upward. “It is the pope!”
My heart quickened, as did my steps. Once outside the basilica, a handful of classmates and I tore through Vatican security and sprinted up the basilica steps. John Paul II was celebrating a cardinal’s funeral Mass, and we caught a glimpse of him in the final procession.
He was old, hunched in his chair. He raised his hand to bless the crowd, and the action seemed to demand most of his strength. Yet this was the man I would later see in photos, the young pontiff with his ski poles in the mountains, the man who, I would learn, hid from the Nazis, brought down communism and survived an assassin’s bullet. He was the pope who canonized more saints than any before him (483!), emphasized a devotion to Mary and introduced a new decade of the Rosary.
I fell in love with this man, this pope, this father. My friends and I would wait hours nearly every Wednesday in Rome to secure our seats for his weekly audience, cheering as he entered and patiently waiting for his words to be translated to English.
Like every regular audience, we became convinced that he saw us as he passed in the popemobile, that he blessed us, that he knew us!
Later, I read his writings (he authored 14 encyclicals), and studied what has become known as his Theology of the Body, which is compiled from his series on human sexuality given at papal audiences between 1979 and 1984. For John Paul II, everything was about Christ’s love, and he lived it, up to his very last breathes. His was a presence of love, and even as he grew sicker, less able to be in public, he kept his life and heart open to the world.
At one time in my mind, Pope John Paul II was simply a religious figure. Thankfully and joyfully, I came to respect him as the leader of my church, and then as a spiritual guide.
When he died in 2005, I cried because we had lost a great father, and I smiled through the tears, because now I could ask for his intercession in heaven, and for the first time in my life, I felt very close to a saint.
Certainly, I was not alone. Young people across the globe held him dear, not because he was a pope, but because he was their pope. Millions had gathered in corners of the world to see him at World Youth Days, which he began in 1984. Young people loved him. It was obvious in the way they shouted his name as he passed in the square. And the pope obviously loved them. As a young priest, he was known for his work with youth, and even in his last years, he smiled as he watched them break dance, sing, play instruments. He had a special place in his heart for young people, as he often told them. He also had great expectations for them.
On World Youth Day in 2004, which would become his last, he spoke of his desire for young people to embrace Christ:
“The desire to see Jesus dwells deep in the heart of each man and each woman. My dear young people, allow Jesus to gaze into your eyes so that the desire to see the Light, and to experience the splendor of the Truth, may grow within you. Whether we are aware of it or not, God has created us because he loves us and so that we in turn may love him.”
Last year, George Weigel published a sequel to his 1999 bestselling biography of John Paul II, “Witness to Hope.” His new book, “The End and the Beginning,” covers the last six years of the pope’s life. When I interviewed Weigel in October for The Catholic Spirit, I asked him about the special affection young people had for John Paul II. This is what he said:
“I think that the answer to the question about John Paul II’s attraction to young people is not difficult to come by. Young people want to be challenged to lead lives of holiness, and in a culture that generally now panders to young people in advertising and dress, whatever, this unapologetic challenge to lead large lives was very, very compelling.
“The other thing is what I said a moment ago — this luminous transparent honesty. Kids have very good baloney detectors, and there was no baloney. He wasn’t asking kids to do anything that he hadn’t done, and there was nothing false about it. That combination of transparent honesty and challenge made for a very compelling package.”
A compelling package, indeed. Certainly, before John Paul II’s death, we knew we had a saint among us, in the colloquial sense. In May, his beatification will confirm that we have a saint in heaven who is interceding for us, and searching young Catholics are especially close to his heart.
CatholicMatchers, young and young at heart, what are your favorite memories of Pope John Paul II?