(SNR) - Catholics around the world are rejoicing as preparations are being made for the beatification of Pope John Paul II on Sunday, May 1.
It is no coincidence that the late Holy Father’s beatification will take place on the Feast of Divine Mercy. Not only did he personally establish this observance for the universal Church in 2000, he died on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005.
As he prepared to beatify his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI said, "Those who knew him, those who esteemed and loved him, cannot but rejoice with the Church for this event."
In the Diocese of Lincoln, a number of priests, religious and laypersons had the privilege of experiencing personal encounters with Pope John Paul II while he still lived. Each of them has profound memories of this remarkable man.
"An enormous inspiration in my life."
When Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz was a priest working at the Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II – then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow – was a member of the Congregation, so their paths crossed frequently.
"We hit it off quite nicely," the bishop recalled. "He was an extraordinarily interesting and complex personality…exceptionally contemplative and meditative in the way he dealt with issues. "
The bishop smiled, "He also frequently made us laugh."
He recalled seeing Pope John Paul II for the first time after the Holy Father had fallen, dislocating a shoulder and breaking his hip. As he hobbled into the room with a cane, the pontiff jested, "Eppur si muove."
Bishop Bruskewitz chuckled as he translated, " ‘Whatever you say…it moves,’ which is what Galileo was alleged to have said after his trial."
After Pope John II appointed him Bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Bishop Bruskewitz had several more encounters with him, along with his mother and sister. The Holy Father always made them feel at ease.
"I remember his affection and the outpouring of concern for me personally," the bishop said. He told of how the Holy Father and his mother shared a conversation in Czech, which Pope John II recalled during a subsequent meeting as he handed the bishop a special rosary to take back to Mrs. Bruskewitz.
For the Church and for the secular world, Bishop Bruskewitz said that Pope John Paul II had an enormous impact.
"His great work, his encyclicals, his apostolic letters… some of his writings and teachings were monumental."
Bishop Bruskewitz also marveled at how much time Pope John Paul II devoted himself to prayer, fasting and acts of penance.
"It was kind of astonishing for me," he said. "After his death, we found out he led even a more austere life than we knew."
He concluded, "I can only tell you that Pope John Paul II has been and continues to be an enormous inspiration in my life."
"His zeal was phenomenal."
Tony Ojeda of Saint Mary Parish in Denton saw Pope John Paul II in person for the first time at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. Six years later, Mr. Ojeda travelled to see him again, when the Holy Father made a pastoral visit in Saint Louis, Mo.
"Both times were life-changing," Mr. Ojeda said.
He was inspired by the pope’s obvious desire to build passion for the faith among all Catholics… and particularly young Catholics.
"The thing that always struck me was his own youthfulness," Mr. Ojeda said, citing Pope John Paul II’s remarkable energy, despite his busy travel schedule and his age (73 and 79 years respectively).
"His zeal for the faith and passing on that zeal to young people was phenomenal," Mr. Ojeda said.
"You could sense the presence of Christ."
Sister Maria Meza, M.S., had the privilege of studying in Rome between 2001-2003. While there, she was frequently able to catch glimpses of Pope John Paul II. Once, she even ran alongside his limo, and he waved back at her.
While in Rome, Sister Maria celebrated the 25th jubilee of her final vows, which included a personal encounter with the Holy Father at one of his weekly audiences. It was 2002, and the pontiff had become quite ill. She was allowed to go up, kiss his hand and receive a blessing.
"That was a pretty big highlight for me," she said. "When he looked at you, you felt like he saw your soul… It kind of made time stop for me."
Despite his pain, she witnessed his very personal love for each person he encountered.
"It almost energized him," she said. "He was very Christ-like, very gentle and patient…. Humility just radiated out of him."
Sister Maria recalled that the pope had suffered tremendously during Lent one year. He had lost his voice, which prevented him from attending these weekly audiences. At last, the Wednesday after Easter, he reappeared, leading a group of children in singing the hymn, Regina Caeli: "O Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia…"
"He just bellowed it out. You could hear it all along that long street leading up to Saint Peter’s," Sister Maria said. "People cried..."
She added, "He truly lived his priestly vocation to the hilt… You could honestly sense the presence of Christ in his presence."
"He was tireless."
When Kent and Jackie Knobbe of Rulo were engaged in 2003, they shared their plans of going to Italy for their honeymoon with the priest who was preparing them to receive the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, Father Joel Panzer.
"He told us we should go and have our marriage blessed by the pope," Mrs. Knobbe replied.
Father Panzer began making arrangements through Msgr. James Reinert, who was then at the Vatican. When Father Panzer left for another assignment, Father Thomas Dunavan took over. Msgr. Robert Roh also pitched in, making sure the couple was set up for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"Marriage and family were such big issues for him," Mrs. Knobbe said of the late Holy Father.
On the morning of the blessing, which was to take place at the papal summer home in Lazio, the newlyweds rose early and dressed in their wedding clothes. A taxi took them most of the journey into the mountains. They, along with a host of other pilgrims, walked the rest of the way.
Once they arrived, the Knobbes and 21 other newlywed couples were ushered into a private waiting area in the pope’s house. They looked out the open windows to see hundreds of other people gathered for the audience.
At last, Pope John Paul II made his appearance.
"He was very sick man, but his mind was so active," Mrs. Knobbe recalled. "He spoke in every language. He met everyone – he was tireless!"
When it was their turn, the Knobbes knelt in front of the Holy Father to kiss his ring and receive his blessing, nervously greeting him in the little Italian they had learned specially for the occasion. They also brought rosaries for him to touch.
The impact of their meeting Pope John Paul II continued to grow. They enjoy sharing photos of the event to friends and family, and they later learned that if the Holy Father is canonized, the rosaries they took to Italy – and even their own bodies – will become third-class relics.
"It was pretty amazing," Mrs. Knobbe said. "It just felt unreal.
"You felt like you were there with your father."
In 2000, Msgrs. James Dawson, Raymond Hain and Robert Tucker, along with Father Lawrence Stoley, travelled to Rome for 10 days, where they had an unforgettable experience: concelebrating Mass with Pope John Paul II in his private chapel.
The four priests from the Lincoln Diocese were joined by a few others from other dioceses. Some German pilgrims were also in attendance with their bishop.
"When we came into the chapel, and the man was in prayer, like he always seemed to be in prayer," Msgr. Hain said. "You sensed a kind of deep religious union that he seemed to have with God."
The setting was "very intimate, very close, very unusual," Msgr. Hain remembered. (The Holy Father’s private chapel only holds about 35 people.)
"I must say, I really didn’t feel uneasy about being able to concelebrate the Mass with him in that small situation, because he didn’t make you feel as though he was the pope towering over you…You kind of felt like you were there with your father."
After Mass, the priests were invited to stay for a few minutes for a short visit with the Holy Father.
"He wasn’t well then anymore," Msgr. Hain said. "He didn’t speak much, but there was a personal encounter that you had with him. He gave us each a rosary and said some little blessings for us and our families."
He continued, "I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It was the highlight of our trip."
"He had the message of the Gospel."
Msgr. James Reinert, now pastor of Saint Joseph Parish in York, worked for years as the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations and then at the Vatican itself, so he enjoyed numerous encounters with Pope John Paul II.
He witnessed the Holy Father’s change from a vibrant newly made pontiff in his mid-50s to the frail old man in his final years. What remained consistent, Msgr. Reinert said, was Pope John Paul II’s deep concern for his flock.
"He was someone who cared greatly about what he was doing and the people he was meeting," Msgr. Reinert remembered. "In fact, after he spoke at the United Nations in October 1995, we had lunch later in the day, and he said, ‘I hope I told them what they needed to hear.’"
Msgr. Reinert continued, "I think that was true throughout his pontificate. He had the message of the Gospel, and he wanted to share it."
Following Pope John Paul II’s beatification on Sunday, one more miracle must be attributed to him and authenticated before he will be canonized.
Already, many Catholics are calling him, "Pope John Paul the Great."
"That’s a very beautiful phrase," Bishop Bruskewitz said, noting that such titles can become commonly used by laypeople, priests and religious before they gain any sort of "officiality."
"I would certainly be happy to be one of them," he smiled.
The beatification ceremony will be broadcast on ETWN beginning at 1:30 a.m. central time on Sunday, May 1, and on many other major networks at various other times. Check local listings for details.