Today is a wonderful day. Even though I was born during the papacy of Paul VI, the first pope I remember was John Paul II.
I know that there are a lot of people who would like the Church to remove much of its ceremony and pageantry. And there is something to be said about removing much of the monetary ostentation. But I can still see John Paul so vividly: a figure standing tall in his robes like Gandalf the White. He was a singular figure. To my child's mind, there was no one else like him in the world. He was in every way the visible head of the Church.
There is so much to write about the man. I will not attempt to do so here, since others today have been doing such a wonderful job. I would like to only give you my memories of the man.
I remember him smiling all the time. He projected a strong sense of kindness with his demeanour and his eyes. I don't remember when he was shot. But I do remember being told about it and how he went to the prison and embraced and forgave his would-be assassin. I was young, but I remember thinking, "Of course. That's what Jesus would do." It seems so obvious to the child's mind: he is supposed to be holy.
As I became older I learned more about his life and began to read his works. As I entered my teens and went off to college, I became very protective of him. He was my pope. I remember being on a field trip and one of my classmates went on a rant against him saying things like "Who the hell does he think he is?" I was waiting for my religion professor to correct her, only to find that she joined in the attacks. I wish I had jumped in, but I was very timid.
In one of my classes I decided to write an explanation of his theology of Woman. It was fascinating to me that my classmates were very open-minded even if they did not agree. My professors were the ones who closed their minds to different philosophies.
And as he aged, I watched his body become racked with pain. His easy smile was gone, replaced with a permanent scowl. How many of us would let vanity plague our thoughts and worry about how people would remember us in our last years as opposed to our more attractive ones. But John Paul II did not shy away from the suffering. He embraced the cross of Christ. I was a always enamored with the crucifix he chose as Pontiff. It was was not ornate, but wiry and knotted. It gave a very tangible sense of pain. And he always held that crucifix high above him as if to say, "Do not be afraid."
I saw him in person only once. I was at World Youth Day in Toronto and I happen to be along the route that his "Popemobile" took. I was only about 20 feet away when he passed.
It is hard to describe what that experience was like. I was in the presence of greatness. But it wasn't like meeting a celebrity or head of state. To see him with my own eyes, to see him as he was...
Walter Hooper was CS Lewis' friend and biographer. He was called to the Vatican to meet the newly elected John Paul II, who was a fan of Lewis' writings. When Hooper saw the pope, he said that it it "was like meeting Aslan."
Hooper's words were perfect in describing my own impression of the man. It was almost scary to see him. Even though he could barely walk and was hunched over by the ravages of time, there was a power that radiated out of him.
He life was such a constant presence in my life as a Catholic that I couldn't help but be shocked when he died, despite his age and deteriorating health. I had just finished going to confession and as we were leaving, the bells began to toll. We found it odd, so we turned on the radio and heard about his passing.
I feel so blessed to have been alive during his papacy. I am even happier that I have him now as a friend in Heaven who is praying for a sinner like me before the Throne of God.
Pope St. John Paul the Great, pray for us!