St. John Paul II — model for a ministry of love
Michael C. Barber, SJ
St. John Paul II
(Bishop Barber wrote this remembrance for Catholic San Francisco shortly after Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005.)
Pope John Paul II. In memoriam.
"A voice is silent in the midst of the Church and in our land, the like of which will not be heard again in our day …"
About every 500 years, Fulton Sheen wrote, a crisis hits the Church. The first was the fall of Rome, and God raised up Gregory the Great. In about the year 1000, schism and corruption occurred and God called upon Gregory VII, a holy Benedictine, to stop the scandal. Five hundred years later, the Reformation split Western Christendom, and God gave the Church Pius V to apply the reforms of the Council of Trent and generate missionary activity throughout the world.
"Now we are in the fourth cycle of 500 years, with two world wars in 21 years, and the universal dread of nuclear incineration. This time God has given us John Paul II, who has drawn the attention of the world to himself as no human being has done in history."
I'll never forget my brief meeting with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican in October 1988. It was the day of his 10th anniversary of election. In a private audience, I was presented to the Holy Father by Cardinal Pio Taofinu'u, for whom I had been working in Samoa. The cardinal said to the pope: "This is Father Barber. He's a Jesuit." The Pope looked at me incredulously, but with a twinkle in his eye. "You?" "A Jesuit?" "But you are so friendly!"
I remember the thrill of his election. Only 56 years old. The first non-Italian in 455 years. The skiing Pope. The shock when he was shot. His admission of depression during his recovery. His forgiveness and compassion for his would-be assassin. His gratitude to Our Lady of Fatima for sparing him.
During his convalescence, he received Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter of Toronto, who was suffering from a recent stroke. Struggling to walk, Cardinal Carter said to the pope, "Well, Your Holiness, I guess we just have to accept these things from God."
The Pope looked at him, and said "No…" "No…" Carter wondered what he had said wrong. The Holy Father responded, "We must accept these things … with JOY!"
I was studying in Rome when Mikhail Gorbachev made his historic visit to the Vatican in 1989. All traffic was stopped. There was an eerie quiet on the streets, like during a championship soccer match. All the Romans were glued to their TVs, as Gorbachev's limousine inched toward the Vatican. The pope came out of his apartments in a dramatic gesture to welcome the Soviet president. They spent the first 10 minutes alone together with no interpreters. "Gorby is going to confession," one Polish Jesuit quipped.
A few years later President Gorbachev admitted in a syndicated article that Pope John Paul was the single greatest influence on him in changing the communist system.
In one of his famous "Parochial and Plain Sermons," Cardinal John Henry Newman said, "Personal influence is the principal means of propagating the Truth."
John Paul's immense personal influence has not only touched the famous, but especially the common person. During a ceremony before 2 million kids at World Youth Day 2000, a barefoot teenage girl, evading the guards, climbed up onto the stage, ran across the altar to where the pope was sitting, and threw herself at his feet. Crying, she looked up and poured out her heart to the pontiff. Waving off security, the pope held her hand, listened to her, looked right in her eyes and spoke to her as a father to his daughter. He gave her an affectionate hug and she departed, clearly relieved.
In his first-ever address as Successor of Peter, given to the cardinals still assembled in the Sistine Chapel after his election, the new pope said, "We want our ministry to be from the outset a ministry of love, and want to show and declare this in every possible way."
Looking at the faces of the mourners gathered in St. Peter's Square and around the world, we can see how this man's personal influence transformed people's lives with love. Wherever the pope went, he literally touched as many hands as he could. His personal touch, the blessing of his presence, is something many people will never forget. Watching the television reports these days in the wake of his death, countless people are testifying that just seeing him in person filled them with joy and peace. "It's like my dad has died." "He was a priest who listened, who understood, who cared." "We are all orphans now."
He never forgot his origins. He had a superb education with two doctoral degrees, but he was essentially a working man. When he came to San Francisco and dined in Saint Mary's Cathedral rectory with local bishops, the vintners of the Napa Valley donated their very best wines. Gesturing toward these priceless bottles, Monsignor P.J. McGrath, then pastor, approached the pope and said "Holy Father, would you like something to drink?" The pope thought for a minute, looked at the wine, and said "You know ... I think ... I would like ... a beer." In haste monsignor went digging through the fridge but could only come up with a single can of Bud Lite.
In the dome, above the High Altar in St. Peter's Basilica, where the pope celebrated Mass for 26 years, there is an inscription in Latin: Tu es Petrus (You are Peter).
Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said "Feed my lambs."
May this faithful servant who faithfully fed us with the Bread of Life and the mysteries of the Lord's forgiveness and love rejoice with Him forever in heaven.
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