“I have looked for you, and now you have come to me.” Those were some of the last words of Pope John Paul II. This holy man with an incredible personal story and a simple message, rooted in the love of Christ and power of prayer, changed lives.
Pope John Paul II touched my life and the lives of my wife, Karen, and our children in a special way. I was privileged to have five audiences with the pope at the Vatican. On three occasions, I participated in Masses celebrated by the pope in his private apartment chapel. Karen, our children, and I will always cherish the memories of our inspiring meetings with him.
The first time at Mass in his private chapel was in 1999. I came with my family and Karen’s dear parents. Karen was pregnant with our sixth child, Peter. It was early in the morning. We were going to sit in the back row, but Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz insisted we sit in the front row with the children.
As we came in and sat down, seeing the pope kneeling in prayer immediately moved us to tears. We could have reached out and touched him, we were so close. It was amazing to kneel down in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament with the successor to St. Peter—the Vicar of Christ. Karen and I could feel the Holy Spirit radiating from him. We have never seen someone so absorbed in prayer. He prayed as if he were in another world.
As the pope celebrated Mass, he looked into the faces of our children and smiled. He kept focusing on them the entire Mass, as though he thought they were the only ones present. It was incredible to receive Holy Communion from him. Tears streamed down our faces throughout the Mass.
After Mass, in his library, the Holy Father kissed and blessed our children as if they were his own, as Christ would have. Karen gave the pope a copy of her book, Letters to Gabriel. He thanked her and gave her a signed copy of his book and a big hug and blessing in return.
The tears never stopped. Like many people, members of my family were overcome in the presence of the Holy Father, moved to tears by his tenderness and holiness. It was an unforgettably touching and moving experience, transporting us to a different place and time. He blessed us all and gave us a rosary he had blessed, which we still use when we pray the family rosary. The pope blessed our unborn son in the womb, and so when he was born we decided to name him Peter after the first pope.
In 2001, Karen and I returned to participate in a second private Mass said by the pope. The children were not with us. This time, I had a job—I was the first reader at Mass. I have spoken before thousands of people, but reading Sacred Scripture in front of the Holy Father was an experience of a lifetime.
Karen was pregnant with our seventh child, Patrick, and after Mass the pope blessed him in the womb. We knelt before our Holy Father, kissed his ring, and told him we loved him. He asked, “Where are your children?” Karen showed the pope a current picture of the children and told him that our baby, Peter, had a grave condition the doctors said ultimately could take his life. The pope said he would pray for him, and he kept the picture of the children.
When we returned from this visit and went to the hospital for Peter’s surgery, the doctor came out after taking some preoperative tests and said, “If Peter’s name was not on this chart, never in a million years would I guess this was your son.” He had recovered from a life-threatening condition and no longer needed the surgery. We suspected that the pope had a hand in it.
Pope John Paul II impacted our family in such a personal and powerful way. And on April 8, Karen and I had the final honor of attending the pope’s viewing and funeral Mass. It was glorious, but so emotional. There are no words to describe how moving it was to be present and rejoice in the life of this great spiritual and moral leader.
“Follow me.” The risen Lord said these words to Peter, and then—Cardinal Ratzinger eloquently reminded us in his homily that the pope lived these words. He remains a wonderful example for all Christians and all people. He strengthened my family and gave us hope. He guided me and gave me strength to fight the good fight. My family and I will always love John Paul the Great.