JPII and Me: A Birthday Tribute
Written for the Feast of Saint John Paul II in October 2014
At age 16, I don't think that I had ever cried myself to sleep.
But, on the night of April 1, 2005, as Pope John Paul II lay on his deathbed, I got about as close as you could get.
And, as the tears streamed down my face, turning into sobs, there were—whether spoken or unspoken—three words resounding in my heart:
I love you.
Upon reading those words, many, especially a non-Catholic friend, might nod in understanding and ask, “When did you meet him?”
Well, actually . . . I didn't. At least, not in the way you might think.
I could explain the theological-historical (the hyphen because they are so closely intertwined) significance of the papacy . . . and, indeed, that would help increase understanding of why I said those words. Yet it would not explain it completely. So, while the concrete meaning is very important—and perhaps material for a future post, for those interested—tonight I think I will return to that sixteen-year-old girl who lay awake on that night in April many years ago.
Tonight—today—I will focus on the mystery.
As a child and teenager, I felt very close to Pope John Paul II. By that, I do not mean that he was a far-off “celebrity” to whom I could relate. No, that wasn't it at all. That wasn't him at all.
Between Pope John Paul II and me—from my heart to his—was a profound spiritual connection that is difficult to explain.
Yet, upon further reflection, we may also consider the following questions:
Why do new parents fall in 'love at first sight' when they see their child for the first time?
And, in any circumstance of love . . . how do you know that you are in love?
You see, try as we might, any explanation will always fall short.
That is why Love is more than a choice (while remaining a choice), and certainly more than a feeling.
It is because it is also, in many ways, a mystery. A beautiful, beautiful mystery.
And it was this deep understanding and connection—a mixture of the concrete and the mysterious—that kept me awake late that night eighteen years ago. It is what compels me now to write this, once again late at night. And the reason is this:
It wasn't just that I loved Pope John Paul II. It was that I knew that Pope John Paul II loved me just as he loved all of God's people . . . because his heart was filled so entirely with the Love of Christ.
Before I continue, I'd like to pause for a moment and consider a later moment in time:
When a notable world leader—a non-Catholic—met Pope Benedict XVI, the successor of Pope John Paul II, he was later asked in an interview what he saw when he looked into the pope's eyes. He said, “God.” That moment may call us to remember words recounted in Les Misérables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
This encounter speaks volumes. It speaks of another great pope who, even from the eyes of a non-Catholic, was so clearly seen as one who walked faithfully—and purely—in the Light of Christ.
And, in the case of Pope John Paul II, that person also happened to be a saint.
Pope John Paul II lived an incredible life, not because he was thrown into a tumultuous time in history—although his reaction to that placement in time shaped who he would become—but because he chose to follow the Mystery of Christ's Love, no matter how difficult that path would prove. It was a choice. A choice and a mystery.
Our 264th pope spoke in a voice that was gentle, yet unwavering—filled with peace—his eyes were overflowing with the deepest love, and his actions—the steps that led him to visit the shooter who had made an attempt on his life, listen to him, and forgive him—showed the depths of his character, his soul, and the person that he was, and remains.
As I lay awake that night long ago, thousands of people gathered in Rome outside the papal apartments in quiet prayer. We were united, as one people, as Catholics. And, in the final hours of his life, Pope John Paul II said, “I have looked for you. Now you have come to me, and I thank you.”
The next day I would hear of the passing of this great man—of this saint. It was likewise a great loss, but all the more gain to Heaven. As he said toward the end of his life, “Non omnis moriar.” (Not all of me will die.) To this day, a member of my immediate family attributes the intercessory prayer of Pope John Paul II to a personal miracle.
And six days later saw the funeral of our beloved pope.
At the very moment of Pope John Paul II's burial, large rain clouds appeared, yet not a single drop of rain fell that day, nor the entire week in which pilgrims and locals camped out and waited in line to see the Pope's body. The last hours of the Pope's life, during which many people kept vigil in the streets, had a similar result. It was as if the heavens held their breath in tribute to the passing of a great and holy man. Almost immediately after the funeral, rain began to fall steadily . . . like heavenly tears.
But today is a day of celebration, not a day for tears. To echo the words of Pope John Paul II, “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”
Saint Pope John Paul II, pray for us. We love you.