I began my seminary studies by flying to Rome the same day Pope John Paul II returned from his first apostolic visit to the United States. Some published reports implied that I had been piled into his craft, but I was on the flight behind his, and I definitely had not been kidnapped.
The early years of his pontificate were an unending round of surprises. Visiting both Britain and Argentina during the Falklands War ranked high among them, and to a reporter who asked how he could do this for belligerents, his response raised the eyebrows of some soft ecclesiologists: “This is my Church.” He had a definite sense of that. Although Queen Elizabeth II had been told she need not follow the protocol that reserved white for Catholic queens, her arrival in audience veiled in black with multiple diamonds moved him to a palpable kind of childlike delight; after all, she had been on currency and stamps around the world when he was unknown. He did not lose balance, though, and later that day he unofficially chuckled kindly in recounting that she had told him they both had the burden of heading a Church.
In pontifical ceremonies, nascent seminarians and newly oiled deacons often stood closer to him than important officials. Once in St. Peter’s a screaming madwoman in a flaming red dress dashed in front of me toward the altar. Guards quickly knocked her legs out from under her and gracefully carried her away in what almost seemed like a ballet. The pope never blinked. He did wince on a Palm Sunday when he blessed a rose-crowned lamb presented at the offertory. I was near enough, as a deacon, to see his face contort as he touched the lamb’s head. Weeks later in the same place he was shot, and I refuse to call hindsight what seemed to be a presentiment. On May 13, a woman came to our college residence on Via dell’Umilta to collect her audience ticket and, after she was shot in the attack on the Holy Father, I think it was her blood one saw on the stones. All that night an icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa rested on the empty papal throne.
He met my visiting parents, who were not yet Catholic, and instead of discussing the papal primacy he took their hands and mine and made a kind of sandwich of them between his own. Within little more than a year they were received into the Church. The only personal contribution I made to his pontificate was at a frugal Lenten dinner when he asked the English word for “homiletics” — and I told him, “homiletics.”
Laws of logic check breezy attempts to install him in a diaphanous pantheon of the valiant while rejecting his claims for the papacy. A man who mistakenly thinks of himself as the Rock on which the Church was founded is great in the sense of being greatly deluded and roams history as a cultural vandal. If he is right, he deserves religious obedience.
I did not appreciate his poetry or drama, and supposed that what sounded turgid was lost in translation, as is the almost inevitable way with verse. It was tempting to neglect some of his paradoxes as romantic flights, too. That was my instinct when he told our race, “Man, become what you are.” In the reflected light of those Roman years, those of us who heard him were like the men on the Emmaus road wondering why he did not notice the sunset when all the while he was squinting at a sunrise. In various ways, shouting over Marxist goons in Nicaragua, patiently abiding the harangues of an American bourgeois, he was saying, “O foolish and slow of heart, not to believe all that the prophets said must come to pass.” After his “Amen” as he left this act of his life, we may say: “Did not our hearts burn within us when he walked with us and opened to us the Scriptures along the way?”
This column is reprinted from Father Rutler’s Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, and originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Crisis Magazine.