On the evening of April 2, 2005, upon hearing the news of Pope John Paul II’s death, I shut off the television and instinctively put on my shoes. Without a second thought, I found myself walking across the campus of Providence College to St. Dominic Chapel. As I was walking, I found myself profusely crying, but I couldn’t make sense as to why. I hadn’t known the man. We had no blood relation – he was a Pole who had been living in Rome and I was an Italian-American from New Jersey. Why had I found myself so grief-stricken? And yet there I was, seeking comfort in front of the Blessed Sacrament, in a church that had become a home to me.
As I prayed, other students, professors, and priests began to trickle in. In the still, quiet church, something dawned on me. A few feet away from me sat Fr. John Paul Walker, OP, one of our Dominican chaplains. Suddenly I realized that he shared the name of the late pope. This was not his birth name; it was a name he had chosen to bear for the remainder of his life when he began studying for the priesthood. As I looked at this man, so intently praying and grieving, a man who was guiding me in my personal and faith development, I realized that the perceived chasm that existed between Pope John Paul II and me was non-existent. We were, in fact, more closely related than I realized.
In the days, weeks, and years after the pontiff’s death, I set out with fervor and determination to get to him, this man who had so shaped the life of Fr. John Paul. If I did not know much about him during his life, I was sure to learn it after his death. Who was the man that had turned the lives of so many young people upside down? Who was this man whom many were calling a saint so soon? Who was the pope who was being hailed as “the Great?”
In my study, I discovered the lasting treasures he has given to the Church and the world. And I felt as if he had given them just to me: pages of plays and poems; catechesis on mercy and the value of suffering; an awareness of the dangers of moral relativism and the battle for a culture of life; teaching on human sexuality that got down to the nitty-gritty; an appreciation and celebration of authentic femininity; hundreds of new saints and models of faith whom he canonized; World Youth Days and a nourishment of the faith of the young; a sweeping picture of the universality of the Gospel in his travels; and a front-row seat to witness the dignity of the infirm and aged.
This man modeled everything about which he wrote or of which he spoke. There was no hypocrisy in him. He was a man who had lost every immediate family member by his early adulthood. The Nazis slaughtered his friends in front of him. He forgave the man who had tried to assassinate him. He had been emptied throughout his life, and in that darkness discovered that light of Christ is the only reality that can sustain a man. It is what allowed him to daringly proclaim over and over again, “Be not afraid!” to a world that gives us every cause to fear.
Though I never met the man, Pope John Paul II intimately shaped my life. He set me on a path to teach the young and offer them hope and light in a dark world. He showed me what I was living for and who I was living for.
He made me certain that I, too, would always bear a name for the remainder of life my – that of Christian. Before my given name, before my professional title, before conservative, liberal, American or otherwise, I am marked by my faith. To belong to Christ and to His Church is the most important reality that John Paul II and I share. And as real as my tears were nine years ago, so, too, will be my joy on Sunday, when I am assured that he has crossed the threshold of hope into heaven.