After twelve pilgrimages to Rome since the Jubilee of 2000, praying for him in St. Peter’s Square as he died in 2005, and venerating his body in the crypt of St. Peter’s in 2006, his words “Be not afraid” resonate in my heart and have affected me profoundly. He believed strongly in youth, and urged us to “put out into the deep” for Christ without any fear. I have caught his optimism, and have been deeply influenced by his faith in God. After praying in vigil in St. Peter’s Square for John Paul on the night before he died, I believe I have been passed the torch of his optimism and fearless faith.
I have been blessed with numerous personal encounters with Pope John Paul II. In April 2003, I met the Holy Father personally at a Papal audience with my school group. Bishop Harvey called us forward to meet him in the Paul VI Audience Hall. The Holy Father spoke with us briefly, and then blessed us all. I was leaning on his lap as he blessed us. His goodness and kindness were overwhelming, and I felt joyful as I left him. Clearly, I had been touched by God.
The following year I personally met the Holy Father in his private library in his Papal apartments with my brother who had just become a priest. I was also with my parents and my older sister. We waited for over an hour in the immense chambers outside his library. Oriental rugs hung from the walls; ushers in formal black tails and white gloves waited to present us to the Holy Father. Suddenly we were before him, kneeling– just the five of us! His face was luminous, intense, focused.
We presented him with a few gifts, and time stood still as he conversed with us. He spoke directly to my brother and my sister, and then speaking directly to me, gave me a rosary. “You are littler,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, referring to the similarity between my sister and I, but recognizing I was younger. We laughed and let him know he was right. He gazed at me intently, and I felt full of joy to be in his presence. It seemed that the Holy Father was lingering with us, and then- suddenly- the ushers urged us to depart. I bent over and kissed his ring. As my parents rose to leave, the Holy Father touched me on the head, stroked his hand down my face, and blessed me. Once again, his words “Be not afraid” welled up inside me. Clearly I had been touched by God.
When I arrived in Rome on Good Friday, March 25, 2005, for my annual high school spring pilgrimage to Rome, the Holy Father was dying. Nothing was the same in Rome. Reporters were everywhere, cameras, mobs of onlookers. Because our group was one of the few groups of American tourists in Rome at the time, and because we were so young, newsmen from all over America interviewed us. “Have you really loved this man?” they asked. “Do you really believe in God?” “You are American youth and you are telling us that you have real joy and confidence in your Catholic faith?” “Yes!” “Yes!” “Yes!” we answered. To these confused and often worldly newsmen, our faith was as much a story to cover as the death of this great saint.
On the night before the Holy Father died, Friday, April l, 2005, I personally knelt in prayer for him in St. Peter’s Square for over six hours. I was privileged to be at St. Peter’s for the whole day earlier, and said countless rosaries for him in Italian throughout the day. I wanted to be with him. I wanted to wait with him, to watch with him, to pray with him. He had given me so much. Maybe now I could give something back to him, just by being there with him. I didn’t want him to be afraid. Then, evening fell, and with the darkness, a quiet calm filled the Square. Countless pilgrims knelt in silence and prayed. We jammed next to each other, heads bent, holding candles, praying, weeping—for him. His words: “Be not afraid” echoed through our minds.
Then, to encourage us, he sent word from his death bed to all the youth in the square: “I have looked for you. Now you have come to me, and I thank you.” Clearly, he was speaking directly to me. He knew that I was there. Surely he knew. I watched with him; I waited with him; I prayed for him. I gave back just a little of the enormous faith and hope he had given to me. And I was not afraid.
On the following day when John Paul II died in his Papal Apartments on the vigil of the feast of Divine Mercy, I had just been confirmed in a private chapel at St. Peter’s, hours before his death. Perhaps I was the last youth confirmed under John Paul’s Pontificate. “You are littler.” The three words spoken to me by perhaps the greatest saint of the 20th century had stewed in my heart and come to mean so much more than simply my status as the youngest sibling. It became a call, to remain childlike but through confirmation, an adult in my faith which lead me to choose Jacinta of Fatima as my confirmation saint. With that, my confirmation and his death merged together in one unforgettable day: April 2, 2005. As he died, I was anointed with sacred chrism to live my life fearlessly as a witness for Christ. So once again my life converged with the life of this great man. He called me; he formed me; he touched me; he blessed me. Through his death and my confirmation I was, once again, touched by God.
When I venerated his body two days later, on Monday evening April 4, 2005, I was stunned to witness the millions who came to venerate the life of this one man who had touched so many. The World Youth Day theme “Jesus Christ You Are My Life” resonated through St. Peter’s Basilica as the lines of pilgrims filed past his body. He was lying in state at the high altar where he had celebrated Mass countless times. The greatest man of the twentieth century who had taught us not to be afraid was gone, but the millions who came to venerate him testified to the witness he had been to all of us. He was Christ to us; he had loved us; and we would never be the same again. Because of him, we had all been touched by God.
After venerating the Pope’s body in St. Peter’s Basilica on the evening of Monday, April 4, I left for America the following day.
As we prepared for takeoff, someone in our group opened Time magazine. Amazingly, there was my photograph in the centerfold shot, praying in St. Peter’s Square on the evening of Friday, April 1, 2005. I was praying for this great man who had taught us all not to be afraid; and I was praying for him to die peacefully. There are three of us together in the photograph—three teens representing an entire generation. John Paul had stood with us for many years: formed us, believed in us, loved us. Now it was our turn to give back to him. The photograph shows a generation of youth who through the life and death of John Paul II have been touched by God and taught — never to be afraid.
This post was originally published on impactingculture.com, official blog of John Paul the Great Catholic University.
Maria Mitchell graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2011 with a B.S. in Communication Arts (concentration in Journalism). She graduated in 2013 from John Paul the Great Catholic University with an MBA in Film Producing, and currently resides in San Diego.