I had the privilege of working for Blessed John Paul II for nine years. As a young priest, I worked in the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, and my boss, or perhaps my boss’ boss, was Pope John Paul II.
I won’t forget the nine years I spent in Rome with John Paul II. I had the honor of introducing him to my parents during the year of their 50th wedding anniversary. I had the privilege of being in his presence often and hearing him speak, and of watching him spend time with other priests, with families, with religious, and, especially, with the youth.
John Paul II possessed a gravity of presence, what is known in Latin as gravitas: his sanctity, and generosity, and joy absolutely filled a room. He was funny, and humble, and open. He was among the Church’s greatest theologians and philosophers, and at the same time, he was a pastor of souls: a lover of conversation, and folk culture, and pious worship.
During my years in Rome, the Church was still unpacking the meaning of the Second Vatican Council. After a council, theologians and bishops seek to implement new approaches and ideas, while retaining the continuity of our history and tradition. It’s a tenuous balance. Of course, some approaches are very good, and others are unreasonable, unsound, or unpractical.
Historically, Church councils, like Vatican II, always bring some measure of confusion to the Church’s life. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman once wrote that Church councils “always savor of the soil from which they sprang.” In the case of Vatican II, the soil was the “sixties.” In the post-conciliar period, the good fruit of the council was intermingled, regrettably, with the anti-nomianism, anti-authoritarian, “free-love” spirit of the zeitgeist. There was confusion even among the theologians of the Vatican.
Newman reflected that one must get a bit downstream from a council—50, 75, 100 years—before the water clarifies and the stream gains strength and force.
In the midst of the post-conciliar confusion, John Paul II was a stabilizing and reassuring force: he was like a strong captain guiding the Church, the barque of Peter, through turbulent waters. At a time when many rejected the Church’s magisterial authority, John Paul II published the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitea, and hundreds of other texts, which unequivocally, and charitably, proposed the rich and ancient teachings of the faith. The Holy Spirit gave the Church John Paul II to protect her and guide her in a most difficult time. And with courage, and dependence on the Blessed Virgin Mary, John Paul embraced the greatness to which he was called.
I attended his funeral in 2005 with a heavy heart. Pilgrims had come from everywhere to mourn him. And by an extraordinary grace, the city of Rome became a place of joy, a place to celebrate a man who called us all to courage, and to greatness. The funeral of John Paul II was a celebration of the redemption of Jesus Christ, borne out in the life of John Paul II. On the streets of Rome, it was said that “he taught us how to live and he taught us how to die.”
While I concelebrated his funeral Mass, my mind returned to the very first Mass I’d ever attended with Pope John Paul II. It was 1979. I was 24 years old. I had finished college, and had spent time in a monastery, and was working on a small family farm with my friends in Kansas. Mostly, I was wondering what God had in store for me.
John Paul had come to United States shortly after becoming Pope, and in addition to visiting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Chicago, he came to celebrate Mass on a historic farm in Iowa on October 4, the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. My friends and I drove up from Kansas.
By the grace of God, we ended up close to the very first row. I was awestruck when John Paul II asked the young men in the congregation to consider priesthood. “Come follow me!” he said. I felt as though he was speaking just to me. Five minutes later, he came down to greet the crowd, and he looked directly into my eyes. One does not forget the glimpse of sanctity.
Three months after that Mass, I was a seminarian. Years later I was ordained a priest, and then a bishop. I’ve spent my priesthood following after Jesus Christ, but always in the footsteps, in the model, and by the measure of Blessed John Paul II.
On Sunday, he will be declared a saint. He is a patron for the whole Church. He may someday be called “John Paul the Great.” But I will always remember him as the man who called me to holiness, to greatness, and to the adventure of a lifetime.