Remembrances

I remember seeing Pope John Paul II for the first time on television. He had command of the world stage from the day he took it. He never, ever disappointed. The attraction of his words and the tenderness of his gestures had the aura of holiness that no human could manufacture

John Paul II lived like a lion. He was fearless, confident, and awe-inspiring And then years of infirmity transformed him in his final days from a lion of a man into a gentle lamb who “opened not his mouth.” Through this process, he showed us all how to live and die, and he left behind countless remembrances of what God can do with a willing soul. I am blessed to have a few of these memories.

I remember standing in Central Park in 1995 when the pope sang, laughed, and preached while mesmerizing a vast throng of New Yorkers. Mary and I took our children, at the time 2 years old and 10 months old It was raining that morning but we went so that one day we could tell them they were in the presence of the great John Paul II

I remember standing in Havana in 1998 at an outdoor Mass the pope celebrated for hundreds of thousands of Cubans. Fidel Castro was seated directly in front of the altar During the pope’s eloquent homily in Spanish, the people in the square began to spontaneously chant, “Liberdad!”—freedom For that brilliant moment these souls did not fear the dictator and his secret police circulating among them because their brother, the pope, was there to defend them

The last time I saw the Holy Father was in October 2003 when he beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta. At the end of the Mass in the square of St Peter’s, I knelt before him and asked his blessing upon me, my family, and President Bush I had pictures of them in my hands. He did not speak. He didn’t have to I will never forget the look of fatherly love in his eyes.

As sad as I am that John Paul II is no longer with us, I am consoled knowing that at the moment he died he joined his friend Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and heard those words of Jesus: “Come, you have my Father’s blessing!”

Jim Towey
Director, White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

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Several years ago an international family organization invited me to speak at its Rome conference and offered an extra incentive: They would arrange a meeting with Pope John Paul IF Why in the world would leaders of one religious tradition think that offering an orthodox Jewish rabbi a meeting with the head of a third religious group was enough incentive to get me to Rome) And why were they absolutely correct? (Though to my great disappointment, the audience was canceled due to the pope’s illness.)

The answer speaks to the greatness of Pope John Paul II His unwavering faith and rock-like commitment to the principles of that faith gave strength to God-loving people of all religions Important as they are, the theological and doctrinal distinctions that separate us should not obscure the values and ethics that we share. The pope exemplified this understanding as he embraced and respected those of differing traditions, while never minimizing his personal commitment to the Catholic Church. Defeating the forces of secular fundamentalism will require cooperation among members of all traditional religions and beliefs. By simultaneously reaching out to all races and religious communities with meaningful gestures of reconciliation, the pope laid out a path of future cooperation

Particularly in our times, when large numbers speak of human intervention in the ending of life as noble and good, the clarion call of the pope declaring the value of life as a gift from God was illuminating Whether I agreed on each detail of his policies is irrelevant; his forceful voice gave strength to all of us who are concerned with the devaluing of life, be it through abortion, mercy killings, or the misuse of sexuality. His understanding that regimes that seek to obliterate their citizens’ spiritual lives are incompatible with human dignity changed the course of the entire world by leading to the end of the Soviet Union

For a man who leaves no biological children, Pope John Paul II leaves myriad descendants. Each and every individual he affected through his life is left with the obligation of carrying on his legacy and ensuring that the values he so powerfully conveyed continue to resonate in the world

Rabbi Daniel Lapin
President, Toward Tradition

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I met Pope John Paul II in 1995 while in the seminary, when he came to New York City during his U.S. tour. My classmates and I gathered at Dunwoody, the archdiocesan seminary for New York, where we prayed evening prayer with the Holy Father leading us—not only as shepherd of the universal Church, but as a liturgical father as well. Only four years previously, I had been received into the Catholic Church To sit and pray with the visible head of the Church on earth—it was not something built into my life’s plan “Why did the Holy Father come to Dunwoody?” he asked us ironically He came to strengthen us, to encourage us; to remind us, “Do not be afraid”—words that come to mind regularly in my priestly ministry.

At the conclusion of vespers, the Holy Father shook hands with each of the seminarians who could reach him. I expected his hands to be thin, the hands of a scholar, the hands of a man who had never known physical labor. The hand that met mine was the hand of every farmer I had ever known: thick, calloused, strong He looked into my eyes and smiled a half-smile. I would like to believe he saw something of the future of the Church in the young men who were working to give their lives for Christ One of my classmates said, “It was amazing to see you kiss the Holy Father’s ring You were transfigured ” It was true I glowed—I touched St. Peter’s hands when I touched the Holy Father

I heard the story of his life—how John Paul was an actor, how death disintegrated his family at an early age, how totalitarian regimes were no political abstraction for him, how he was subjected to poverty—and in it, I heard the outlines of my own life John Paul, through the theological virtues, rose above it. By cooperating with grace, he fell victim neither to the Scylla of despair nor the Charybdis of naive idealism I knew I could rise, too, because despite the uncleared tangle of my personal history, I could see the paths come up from the underbrush, converging as they rose, and mysteriously directing me to the One who made me John Paul is and was a witness to hope

Rev Shane Tharp
Pastor, Sacred Heart Parish
Alva, Oklahoma

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The passing of our beloved Holy Father has brought about an unlikely atmosphere of sorrow commingled with joy to our community; the odd feeling of abandonment and bewilderment that must have plagued the apostles after the death of our Lord. Yet, because we know in faith that Jesus Christ has conquered death, we rejoice that this great champion of life, the dignity of the human person, and the loving mercy of God has entered eternal life. Our blessed Mother surely enfolded her good and faithful servant in her mantle and presented him directly to our dear Lord to enter into his Master’s joy. He died as he lived, drawing the multitudes of faithful in the piazza below and, indeed, all of his flock the world over into his paternal heart for a last loving embrace before he passed into eternity. He was a true shepherd who spent his life carrying out the command Jesus gave to his predecessor St. Peter: “Feed My sheep.”

I have had the privilege of attending the Holy Father’s private Mass and audience on several occasions. I was always inspired by his deep prayerfulness, reverence, and love for the Blessed Sacrament and the liturgy. The last time I saw him personally was October 13 last year in Rome, and what struck me as I knelt to kiss his ring and greet him was the love radiating from his eyes. His body was frail, but those penetrating blue eyes communicated all that his tired frame could not: the utter peace and joy in living a life fully surrendered to the Divine Will, even in the midst of suffering. Those eyes saw much throughout his 84 years, from the horror of war to the utter love and adulation of millions of people, especially the youth who energized him so and who flocked around this great shepherd wherever he went. Now the veil has lifted and he sees Jesus and Mary clearly—imagine the joy of beholding our Lord face to face in his paternal solicitude, he will be even more a shepherd and father to each of us in eternity.

Mother Mary Assumpta Long
Foundress and Superior, Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist

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John Paul II embodied God’s fatherhood to a household of more than a billion men and women of different ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds. Because he was a father, he witnessed to the unity of all God’s family. And he spoke to that family in a language with universal appeal—the language of Scripture. As a Protestant, I was first drawn to him by the beautiful and brilliant way he wove the Bible into everything he did. As a Catholic, I loved him even more for the way he not only taught the Faith but lived it.

John Paul took up the model of the Second Vatican Council, which itself had been profoundly shaped by the mid-20th-century “return to the sources”—the Catholic biblical, liturgical, and patristic movements.

John Paul stepped out and proclaimed the biblical “Be not afraid,” the exhortation of prophets and angels—and God Himself—uttered whenever history, whether personal or civilizational, had taken a momentous turn And he confirmed his pervasively scriptural style in all of his early documents.

Everyone knows his theology of the body addresses, delivered from 1979 to 1984, but few people recognize that they were sustained studies of selected texts from the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—employing all the best tools of ancient and modern Scripture scholarship

As pope, he synthesized and proclaimed the teachings of Vatican II in the language of Vatican II, which is the language of Scripture. He took up the mantle of the council’s tributary movements—biblical, liturgical, and patristic—and interwove their work seamlessly in the biblical idiom. The language of the liturgy and the Fathers is, after all, the language of Scripture

How fitting that he died exactly 40 years after the close of Vatican II. In biblical terms, 40 years is a generation. His papacy embodied Vatican II He has presented the fullness of Faith to the world in the most understandable ways and drawn millions, including me, into the heart of the Church. The end of his papacy is the end of a generation.

Scott Hahn
Author, Founder and Director, St Paul Center for Biblical Theology

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In 2003, my wife, Cathy, and I brought a group of It Christendom College pilgrims to Rome in order to celebrate the pope’s Silver Anniversary. Cathy and I had been present in St. Peter’s Square the night of the pope’s election in 1978, so being able to celebrate his 25th anniversary once again in St. Peter’s Square held a significance and poignancy for us.

The night of October 16, 2003, was cool, crisp, and beautiful, with the dark blue sky serving as a backdrop to the gloriously illuminated facade of St. Peter’s Basilica. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking in Italian, welcomed the Holy Father with great tenderness and affection on behalf of all present and thanked him for his years of service as Bishop of Rome and Pastor of the Universal Church. How painful it was to watch as our Holy Father was carried up to his chair and to see him struggle with his broken body during the Mass.

As the Holy Father began the Liturgy of the Eucharist, Cardinal Ratzinger stood there at his side like a dutiful son, gently and tenderly helping him through the Eucharistic prayer. As the moment of consecration approached, a hushed silence fell over the vast multitude that had gathered in Bernini’s colonnade at the heart of Christendom. At the actual moment of consecration, it was deeply moving to see how the Holy Father rallied, and, like a strong, immovable rock, with intense eyes and steady hand raised our Eucharistic Lord for all there present to adore, thus proclaiming once again the miracle of the Mass. At the end of the Mass he pleaded for prayers that he might continue his service to God and to man—a request all of us took to heart as we continued in loyalty and fidelity to support him with the strength of our prayers.

“His body broken for us,” our Holy Father showed us the unconquerable spirit that dwelled within him. It was clear that he was teaching us a new type of theology of the body. Where before he showed us how the body can be a vehicle of strength and can communicate so much, he was now teaching us through brokenness and frailty the dignity of the human person, pouring himself out for the Church as he continued to perform his duty of strengthening the brethren.

Timothy T. O’Donnell
President, Christendom College

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The day before I met the Holy Father, I arrived with my family at a Roman hotel as the receptionist handed me a note. It simply said, “Call the Vatican,” and provided a number. I ended up speaking to a nun who delivered her message to me in broken English She told me, “Be at the bronze doors at 7.00.” And then she made what I thought was almost a perfunctory comment—she said, “This is a wonderful grace.” “Yes,” I replied, “it is wonderful.” But she had said more than that. She had said it was a wonderful grace

That wonderful grace of meeting John Paul II showed me that when holiness is real, Christ becomes irresistible and human weakness doesn’t seem so daunting. Oddly enough, my own sense of insignificance before that holy man triggered an unanticipated sense of relief—I actually felt more peace and security because of the humility that was necessary in his presence. And when I knelt to kiss his ring, I thought to myself, “I do indeed believe that this man of flesh and blood is Christ’s vicar on earth.”

I knew I was seeing only a representative—a type of reflection—of the Incarnate Word, but that reflection spoke two simple words to me in a passing comment that would remind and instruct me for the rest of my life: wonderful grace.

On the way home a few days later, I was praying the rosary and came to the first mystery the Annunciation, the announcement by an angel of the Lord of wonderful news. My mind drifted back to the annunciation I had received when we arrived in Rome: “Be at the bronze doors at 7.00.” My messenger had been right—it was a wonderful grace indeed.

Frank Hanna
CEO of HBR Capital, Ltd

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How do you say goodbye to someone you love so much? That is what raced through my mind when I heard the news that Pope John Paul II had died.

I remember the first time I saw him in October 1979 in Washington, D.C. I was five years old and I sat on my father’s shoulders. Amongst the sea of humanity, the most gentle, loving face I had ever seen emerged from the crowd. Twenty years later, with God’s grace, I found myself living in Rome and working at the U.S. embassy to the Holy See. Pope John Paul II became a regular fixture in my life, not just spiritually but professionally as well. The Vatican became home, and monitoring the pope’s life became my job. His health would deteriorate and speculations about his demise would abound. Yet he never gave up; he continued to meet with princes and peasants, presidents and priests. Canonizations and official ceremonies continued, and he would always make it a point to greet his followers at the weekly Wednesday audiences.

I will never forget 2003. It was my last year in Rome and I saw the pope on many occasions. My final week there, I said goodbye to the city I loved and the gentle man by attending his 25th anniversary celebration. He was very frail and I remember crying. Perhaps I knew it was the last time I would see him alive.

And so, upon hearing of his death, I immediately flew to Rome. Standing in St. Peter’s Basilica, approaching the body of this magnificent person, I wept. This man had been a father, a teacher, a leader, and a friend. As I got closer, I asked God for strength and, as always, He answered my prayers. I saw the gentle face for the last time.

On the morning of April 8, I stood in St. Peter’s Square with millions of other pilgrims. I had a clear view of the simple coffin. Once more, I cried—not because he was gone but because he was so clearly present. As the coffin was taken inside the colossal basilica, I said my last goodbye and reflected on everything he taught me. As I turned my back to St. Peter’s, a smile spread across my face. There was a new saint in heaven and he was ready to listen to my prayers.

Guiomar Carolina Barbi
Executive Assistant to the Ambassador
U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, 2001-2003

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Pope John Paul II was the most remarkable public figure of the past quarter-century. In a time when public life had grown progressively more depressing, dumb, and debased, he consistently represented—in a way that astonishingly combined modesty with sophistication—intelligence, humanity, and virtue. No contemporary public figure, except Mother Teresa, commanded such spiritual authority or did so with equal humility. Unlike most of the great political figures of the 20th century, John Paul left the world a better place—reviving the Catholic Church’s moral influence in exemplary ways. His papacy restored my faith in divine providence. And my private pleasure in his unsurpassed civic and spiritual achievements was magnified by the fact that he was also a poet.

Dana Gioia
Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts

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We have all shared in the outpouring of grief, affection, and prayer prompted by the final illness and death of Pope John Paul II. As an overwhelming flood of media coverage recounts this extraordinary pontificate and speculates about the future of the Church, many ask; What will be the lasting legacy of this pope? I believe the answer is already very clear: Pope John Paul II’s legacy will be his holy life. Although any formal declaration about sainthood obviously requires full consideration by Church authorities, I believe the pope’s death and welcome into heaven mark the fulfillment of what he asked for in the midst of his final suffering. As he himself put it on Good Friday, “I offer up my suffering so that God’s design is completed and His Word walks among the people.” Throughout his earthly life, Pope John Paul II generously answered God’s call, and now he continues to serve God’s people on earth through his intercession. As Cardinal Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—reminded us in his funeral homily, our beloved pope now sees and blesses us from the window of the Father’s house.

Rev. William Stetson
Director, Catholic Information Center
Washington, D.C.

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