Local Catholics reflect on the man who forever changed their lives



Published with permission from The Catholic Sun

By Robert DeFrancesco


Many local Catholics are finding that the more they reflect upon the life and teachings of the late John Paul II, the more they discover just how much he continues to impact their lives today.


September 14th will mark the 20th anniversary of the Holy Father’s only trip to Phoenix, a time remembered with great excitement by those who took part in the community-wide celebration that encompassed the half-dozen papal events.


Many count that day as one of the most important in Arizona history, one that yielded miraculous results: a period of unity between Church and state, a renewed fire for the faith among practicing and lapsed Catholics alike, and a conversion of those inspired by the Holy Spirit.


While John Paul’s visit was a once-in-a-lifetime event, the spirit of his teachings lives on in the hearts of the local Church, perpetually calling them to grow closer to Christ.


Paul Mulligan, the executive director of the Catholic Tuition Organization of the Diocese of Phoenix, is one example of a local Catholic who was able to closely identify with the pope, especially regarding the importance he placed on life, marriage and family.


Mulligan, a Brophy College Preparatory senior in 1987, was one of the students selected to attend the papal Mass at Arizona State University.


As a 17-year-old student, he remembers how “incredible” it was to be in the presence of the Holy Father. But it wasn’t till later in life that he discovered how much that Mass changed him.


“My life intersected with John Paul II at a critical juncture — I knew that what I was searching for was contained in the Person of Christ, and JPII helped me discover that,” Mulligan said.


“The Jesuits always taught me the importance of being a ‘man for others,’” he added. “John Paul II embodied that, and gave me something in the flesh that I could look at and strive to follow.”


It was at that 1987 Mass that he met his future wife, Michelle, who was selected to represent Xavier College Preparatory. While the two had an immediate attraction, Mulligan spent a period of time discerning the priestly vocation before it became clear to him that his future was in the vocation of marriage.


Following graduation from the Naval Academy in 1992, the two were married and later gave birth to their son, John Paul.


“I love the late Holy Father’s teachings on life, marriage and family,” Mulligan said. “They are exciting and challenging and ultimately for the good of humanity and the experience of Christ in the world.”


In 1999, he, his wife and their three children relocated to Maryland so he could earn his master’s degree in theological studies from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. There he continued his pro-life work before recently returning to Phoenix to head up the Catholic Tuition Organization.


In 2002, the Mulligan family drove up to Canada for World Youth Day, an intensely popular international youth celebration begun by the pope in the mid 1980s.


Mulligan and his wife reflect on that time as “a great reunion with the man who brought us together.” For their three children, they hope to integrate the life and teachings of John Paul II into their lives, just as it had been for them.


For Barbara Hernes, a parishioner at St. Thomas the Apostle, the pope’s 1987 visit was “a very special day.”


She was at St. Mary’s Basilica when Pope John Paul II addressed the 100,000 gathered across the street at the Phoenix Civic Plaza, followed by the dialogue and Native American blessing at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and finally the papal Mass at Sun Devil Stadium.


“Just his presence made me feel love and appreciation for being a Catholic,” Hernes said.

From that day 20 years ago, she has been encouraged by his examples to help others, to “do the best we can in our family, with others and the young, and promote Mary in high honor in the Church as he did,” she said.


Other opportunities


The pope’s 1987 tour of the United States had a deep impact on many thousands of Catholics — even for those who weren’t around during the Phoenix visit.


Katrina Zeno remembers exactly where she was on Sept. 14.


“I was delighting in my firstborn son, who was not quite 3 months old,” said Zeno, coordinator of the John Paul II Resource Center for Theology of the Body and Culture for the Diocese of Phoenix.


“At the time, John Paul II was barely on the radar screen of my life, seeing as I was a newly-minted mom living in Steubenville, Ohio,” she added. “However, my son’s presence changed that.”


Five years later, she and her son traveled to Rome to celebrate his fifth birthday and were able to attend the pope’s private morning Mass with about 50 others. Afterward, the group was ushered into an audience hall to greet the pope.


As their turn to meet Pope John Paul II arrived, the Holy Father handed them a papal rosary, and Zeno’s son handed him a small book, “The Titles of Mary.”


He was visibly delighted, Zeno recalled, and he bent down and embraced her son and kissed him. The pope then placed his hand on Zeno’s forehead and blessed her.


“It was a blessing I will never forget. The Vicar of Christ imparted a portion of his spirit to me. Next to the birth of my son, it was the most beautiful moment of my life,” she said.


“In my spirit, I sensed I received new graces for motherhood. These graces were indeed for motherhood, but not biological motherhood. They were for spiritual motherhood.”


She credits that experience as a turning point in her life and a catalyst for the work she’s been doing for the last 10 years. Zeno is an expert on the pope’s teachings, especially on his writings known as the Theology of the Body, and now leads talks and studies for people of all ages and walks of life.


“God was way ahead of me,” Zeno said. “He was already charting a new course and infusing my being with the grace I would need. He was also introducing me to my spiritual father, Pope John Paul II, who would guide me through the process of discovering the full truth about my feminine identity and giftedness.”


 “I truly cannot imagine living at a different time and place in history — living without the presence of John Paul II and his writings,” she said.


“My hope is that we who are the John Paul II Generation will continue to impart a portion of his spirit to all those we meet and to everything that we do so that the world will truly encounter Christ through the body — His Body and ours.”


Ignacio Rodriguez, associate director of the Phoenix Diocese’s Department of Ethnic Ministries, was living in Texas during the pope’s visit, but has been able to identify and respond to the late pontiff in his work for the Church.


“The pope was a great believer in the dignity of each person and that the gifts each culture brings to the Church make it beautiful,” Rodriguez said. “Recognizing and adamantly defending human life in all its stages allows me to carry out that message in my ministry, especially when it comes to our undocumented brothers and sisters.”


Rodriguez was among a handful of local Catholics who traveled to Mexico City in 2002 for the canonization Mass of Juan Diego — the indigenous man to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared some 476 years ago.


“To see the pope as close as I did was awesome. I felt a great sense of connection to him; it was as though he looked at me as he was extending his blessing and saying ‘thank you for being here with me and being part of the universal Church,’” he said.


“I think it was even more impacting for me because I realized that this would be his last trip to Mexico and so I made an extra effort to absorb every moment and take in all I could,” Rodriguez added.


As someone who works to assist and promote the various cultures that make up Phoenix’s Catholics, Rodriguez takes the pope’s apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in America” to heart, and is particularly moved by the pope’s ability to speak several languages — a gift, he said, that “opens one up to be more welcoming and understanding of people who are different than you.”


“[Pope John Paul II] clearly tells us that we are one America and that we should be building bridges of communion, conversion and solidarity, rather than walls which separate us,” Rodriguez said.


The next generation


As a new father and husband, 27-year-old Chris Faddis said he continues to be guided and inspired by the pope’s writings on family and human sexuality — that “it has set the bar for holiness in our marriage, in our dealings with each other, and in the raising of our children.”


Referring to his newborn daughter, the St. Timothy parishioner and former youth minister said, “We have a goal of loving her all the way to heaven and we intend to follow through on that goal. We owe that to JPII. His whole life was dedicated to this mission of the family and inviting us to a higher calling in our lives and families.”


Though he was just 7 at the time of the Phoenix visit, Faddis said it was six years later while watching coverage of the 1993 World Youth Day celebration that he had his first true desire to encounter Pope John Paul II in person.


In 1994, while involved with Life Teen, St. Timothy’s announced it was sponsoring a pilgrimage to Rome the following year.


“I knew right then that I was meant to be on that trip. I was going to meet JPII,” Faddis said. “I, of course, didn’t know how, but God would figure that out.”


In August 1995, the 16-year-old Faddis was on the pilgrimage to Rome and his dream was soon to become a reality, but it almost turned out to be a nightmare for the group of 100 American teenagers.


A bus driver without a sense of urgency got the pilgrims to the Wednesday papal audience late.


“We got there and the place was completely full — I believe it was something like 6,000 people,” he said. “And our group of 100 walked in, and it looked like all the seats were gone.”


An usher greeted the group from Mesa and escorted them forward through the thousands of other pilgrims.


“There at the very front of this huge auditorium was a section reserved just for our group of 100. I sat in the front row. I knew at this point that I was about to be 75 feet from JPII.”


Following the audience, to Faddis’ disbelief, the group of 100 was invited to take photos with the Holy Father. “This was amazing,” he said. “I think all of us were shaking. Some were crying. It was incredible. It seemed that the closer you got to him, the more you felt his spirit, his presence.”


The pope then moved through the crowd, greeting and blessing the Mesa teens. As he neared Faddis, he reached out for him. “He took my hand, I kissed his ring, I hugged him,” he said.


“But what I will never forget was a moment that may not have lasted long in which I looked into his eyes. It was then that I began to understand why his presence was so overwhelming. I saw in his eyes a love that I had never seen before,” Faddis said. “I swear that I saw the weight of God’s love in those eyes.”


It’s moments like this one described by Faddis, that have a profound, lifelong impact — and there are thousands of Catholics throughout the diocese who have similar experiences to share.


Faddis said his peers have been affected much in the same way — either through encounters at a papal visit, an audience at the Vatican or at one of the World Youth Day celebrations — and that the pope’s messages are now being lived out both professionally and personally.


“For all of the great things that we can already see that he did while he was alive, there are many fruits that have yet to be seen,” Faddis said. “I believe that in the next 30 years or so we will be able to feel in profound ways the impact he had on our Church and world. It won’t be just through the young men and women of my generation, but through our children.


“I think this JPII generation, my peers and the other young people of the last 30 years, is a foundation for an even greater work,” he added. “Our children will be the fruit. They will be the priests and religious” of tomorrow.


The original story can be found at: http://www.catholicsun.org/2007/sept6/local/jp2-impact.html

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