Apr 6, 2011
Secular media often breezes over the most important of details. The oft repeated headline after the announcement of John Paul II’s May 1st Beatification was, “Pope Benedict XVI puts John Paul II on the fast track to Sainthood.” HELLO! Did you notice the Sister who was miraculously healed of Parkinson’s? Secular doctors examined her and couldn’t explain it. Doesn’t that deserve a headline?
But I can forgive the media because I tend to overlook life’s most important details too. What made John Paul truly great was that he never did.
There are few people throughout history with the impact and charisma of John Paul II. Who can forget watching his funeral and seeing world leaders sitting like little school boys and girls before his coffin, still reverent, still humble in the presence of this imposing figure with size thirteen shoes! But lest we breeze over the most important details, what made this man of immense shoes truly great was his immense love for every person he encountered.
In "Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way" he wrote, “I don’t like the word ‘crowd,’ which seems too anonymous; I prefer the word ‘multitude.’” Even though he led the world’s 1 billion plus Catholics, he didn’t minister to the masses, but to the individual. He noticed each person in his path. He also reflected in the same book, “I simply pray for everyone every day. As soon as I meet people, I pray for them, and this helps me in all my relationships…I welcome everyone as a person sent to me and entrusted to me by Christ.”
This attention to each person is summed up in an encounter of John Paul II with San Diego’s Bishop Robert Brom.
Brom's first meeting with the Pope occurred in 1963 during the second session of the Second Vatican Council. Brom was a seminarian at the North American College and Pope John Paul was the auxiliary bishop of Krakow. Brom and several classmates were leaving the Church of the Gesu after a visit there when some Polish seminarians with Bishop Wojtyla were entering. At that time Brom and his classmates briefly met the man who would thereafter become the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow and the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. Subsequently, Brom forgot all about the exchange.
In 1983 after his appointment as Bishop of Duluth, Bishop Brom in the context of his first Ad Limina Visit met Pope John Paul for what he thought was the first time. However, John Paul, looking into Brom's face said, "I think we have met before." Brom assured the Holy Father that they'd never met. "I believe we have," insisted the Pope, but Brom was equally sure they had not. After all, a meeting with the Pope isn’t easily forgotten!
Some days later, during the same Ad Limina Visit, the secretary to the Holy Father, then, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, now Cardinal, approached Bishop Brom to say, "Don't argue with the Pope, he remembers when he met you." "When?” Brom asked. "In November of 1963 outside the Church of the Gesu in Rome." Brom's memory refreshed, he asked Monsignor Dziwisz, "How can he do that?" to which Dziwisz explained that for John Paul to meet another person is to encounter God.
It was only years later in another Ad Limina Visit toward the end of the Pope's life that John Paul brought up the subject again. One on one he asked Brom, "How many times have we met, and when was the first time?" to which Brom responded properly. John Paul slapped the desk and with a smile said, "Finally you remember!"
Pope John Paul II’s influence, position, and impact on the course of history made him a very, very “big deal.” But his superhuman love for each individual he encountered is what made him truly “great.” And it’s that holy love of God beating in the heart of a man that is about to get him beatified. It’s not his power, social impact, or his charisma as a leader.
It was this superhuman love that enabled this octogenarian with Parkenson’s wearing a roman outfit to draw more teens than Justin Beiber. It’s this love that moved people to tears standing a mile away from him in a crowd of a million plus. They felt personally loved because they were.
Here is my confession, which I’m comfortable making because it’s probably yours too: In the midst of my busy life it’s easy for me to forget to tell the people I love that I love them; to unintentionally let quality family time slip between my fingers; to forget to call friends; to forget to take care of myself; to get so caught up in the “tasks” of my work that I don’t have time for the people my work is serving. It’s so easy to overlook the most important things in life, namely, the people God has placed around me.
I need to take a lesson from one of the busiest men in history who never overlooked what mattered most. Blessed Pope John Paul II, help me to be truly great.
My thanks to Bishop Brom for his help filling in the details of his story!