“Let’s go to the Pope!”
“Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.”
Sung to the tune of “Let’s Go to the Hop,” that was the little ditty my non-Catholic family sang to itself in 1979, when John Paul II came to the U.S. for his first visit as Pope.
He was little more to us than an occasion for annoying street closings when he came to Washington, D.C. I little knew what impact this stranger from a to-me-stranger-religion would come to have on my life.
I’m among the numerous souls brought to Catholicism largely by the witness of the man who will be beatified this coming Sunday.
During high school I gave up on the Christian faith I’d been raised in. I didn’t so much reject Christ or his teaching as become completely disheartened by the fact that all around me were professing Christians who seemed not to take much interest in striving to live the Gospel.
If love is patient, kind, and not quick to take offense, why were we Christians quick-tempered, gossipy and touchy like everyone else? To cope, I adopted the time-honored adolescent defense mechanism: cynicism.
Onto the world stage strode John Paul II, beaming his merry grin, encouraging us to “Be Not Afraid,” and seeming to embody in his person the antidote to 1970’s “malaise.”
He offered the cure to cynicism: Christian joy. His spirit and teaching gave courage to young hearts afraid to give themselves fully to Christ. And he backed up his smile with the physical and moral courage that brought down the Soviet empire, restored the missionary face of the Church, and faced down the slow wasting death by Parkinson’s.
Three memories of him I cherish.
Twice while living in Rome in 1987 I had the privilege of serving as lector for prayer services at the Vatican. The first of these, I saw the packed crowd in St. Peter’s square jostling for position in hopes of shaking the Pope’s hand and wondered whether anyone present was actually praying.
Then I heard a loud groaning and looked over to see the Holy Father, eyes closed, clasping his crosier tightly, praying in earnest, with an intensity that told me he was praying enough for all of us.
“The Spirit groans in us,” as St. Paul says. Twice having heard the groanings of John Paul at prayer, I now understand what that means.
Once on my baptismal day I had a holiday and went to St. Peter’s. I happened into a friend with an extra ticket for the Papal Rosary that day, so I got in.
I’m not ordinarily so demonstrative, nor was I in the front rows as the Pope processed in, but as he passed, something welled up within me and I shouted:
“Holy Father, today’s the anniversary of my conversion to the Catholic faith!”
He had already passed and was not looking my direction. I don’t know how he found me in the clamoring crowd, but he turned, made a beeline for me and traced the sign of the cross on my forehead. He asked where I was from and when I told him I was American, he replied, “Brava!” and continued on his way.
I can’t read the scriptures about the woman who touched the hem of Christ’s garment without remembering that moment of blessing. How did he pick me out of the crowd?
In 1995, a much older and visibly exhausted John Paul II had just celebrated an hours-long Mass at Camden Yards.
From there he was to go by Popemobile to the Basilica in Baltimore, and people lined the streets to get a glimpse of him. The camera showed him waving and giving himself – but also periodically sitting because he was physically spent. His face looked drawn and weary.
Arriving at the Basilica, John Paul went to kneel on the prie dieu they’d placed for him in front of the tabernacle. He knelt, put his head in his hands…and was gone. I’ve never seen a person disappear so thoroughly into his prayer. Flash bulbs were going off so rapidly all around him it seemed like a strobe light, and there was the constant clicking and whirring of film advancing, but he was oblivious as he made his visit.
Several minutes later he arose: and his face was transformed. He looked refreshed, as if he’d had a nap and a cup of coffee.
Lord, give me prayer like that, I thought.
Blessed John Paul II, pray for us.