Life Will be Victorious
Blessed John Paul: the model of a fearless disciple
I never thought that I would have the opportunity to meet a pope. It just never was on my radar screen of possibilities.
Previous to 1997, I had a couple of “close encounters” with Pope John Paul II.
In 1987, I was about a football field away from the Holy Father when he gave a talk to Catholic health care leaders and diocesan pro-life directors in Phoenix. In 1988, I got even closer to the pope when I concelebrated and distributed Communion at the canonization Mass for St. Rose Philippine Duchesne at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I had gotten closer to a pope than I had ever dreamed possible.
In October of 1997, just having been consecrated an auxiliary bishop for St. Louis, I was privileged to serve as the spiritual director for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land sponsored by the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher. Our pilgrimage concluded with a few days in Rome. Archbishop Justin Rigali, the archbishop of St. Louis at the time, had arranged for me to concelebrate — and for my mother to attend — a Mass with Pope John Paul II in his private chapel. There were a couple of other priests and about 25 lay people in attendance. After the Mass, the Holy Father greeted and gave each one of us a rosary.
I saw Pope John Paul II again in June of 1998. The bishops of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska made our “ad limina” visit, during which I had the opportunity again to concelebrate Mass with the Holy Father, receive a talk from the pope, attend his weekly audience, at which each bishop was presented to the Holy Father. With the other auxiliary bishops of St. Louis, I was presented to the Holy Father by Archbishop Rigali, who then had a private meeting with the pope. The highlight of the visit for me was having lunch with the Holy Father with 11 other bishops. Pope John Paul made us feel very welcome and relaxed us with his humor. He asked questions about the church in our part of the United States and listened intently to our observations.
Our “ad limina” visit coincided with the solemnity of Corpus Christi. I had the opportunity to attend the Corpus Christi Mass celebrated in the piazza outside of St. John Lateran Church and to participate in the candlelight eucharistic procession to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, where there was a brief period of adoration that concluded with Benediction. By this time, the pope’s mobility was greatly impaired. It was incredibly moving to see the Holy Father, despite great pain, drop to his knees in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
In January of 1999, the Holy Father made a pastoral visit to St. Louis. I was able to be present at the Light of the World youth rally, to concelebrate Mass with the Holy Father with more than 100,000 people, and to be in the sanctuary with the pope for an ecumenical prayer service in the cathedral basilica.
I once again had lunch with the Holy Father and a small group of bishops. The biggest thrill of the visit was to be able to present my mother, my Aunt Dolores and my brother and sister-in-law to the Holy Father.
In January 2000, I was back in Rome at the Pontifical North American College, participating in a seminar for recently ordained American bishops. Again, I had the opportunity to attend the weekly audience that was held in the Paul VI Audience Hall. With other visiting bishops, I sat on stage near the Holy Father and was given the opportunity to greet him.
I did not see the pope again until October 2003 when I was in Rome for the beatification of Mother Teresa of Kolkata and for Archbishop Rigali’s induction into the College of Cardinals. Again, I had the opportunity to be presented to the pope and chat briefly with him.
My final visit with Pope John Paul occurred when I accompanied Archbishop Keleher in November 2004 for another “ad limina” visit. By this time, the Holy Father had become even more limited physically, though his mind was as sharp as ever. Archbishop Keleher and I had a brief private meeting with the pope. We communicated to the Holy Father the greetings of the priests, religious and laity of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. We also gave him a brief update on the life of the church in northeast Kansas. As always, he was most gracious and listened carefully to our observations and comments.
I never thought as a young priest I would have the occasion to meet a pope, much less a saint. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to have these multiple encounters with soon-to-be St. John Paul. My meetings with him were brief, but powerful for me. He communicated a warmth and tremendous interest in me as a bishop, but even more in the people I was called to lead and serve.
Pope John Paul II was a gifted leader. Our late Holy Father had the ability, even in brief encounters, to inspire confidence and hope. More than anything else, John Paul modeled for me the guiding principles for my own ministry.
Prayer was at the center of his life. During his pastoral visit to St. Louis, he began his only morning there with more than one-and-a-half hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. This was his practice no matter where he was in the world and no matter the intensity of his schedule. This was clearly the source of his energy and wisdom.
His resolute strength in confronting the powerful Polish communist heads of state was awe-inspiring. He never shied from speaking the truth, but always with love — no matter if it was standing in opposition to unjust political leaders or in articulating the moral teaching of the church. One of the great gifts that John Paul gave the church was articulating a new language to express the beauty of its understanding of human sexuality and the dignity of the human person.
His abiding confidence in the innate goodness of the human person created in the divine image was particularly apparent in his communication with young people. In the face of many critics and skeptics, John Paul was confident that if you invited young people to open their hearts to Jesus and you challenged them to heroism, they would respond.
Many of our younger priests acknowledge Pope John Paul II as a major influence in their vocational discernment. However, he did not only inspire young priests, but an entire generation of Catholics to throw open the doors of their hearts to Jesus and to fall in love with his bride, the church. John Paul not only called the church to be not afraid to open our hearts to Christ, but he modeled for us what it means to follow Our Lord fearlessly.
I frequently invoke the intercession of saints for particular pastoral and personal needs. It will be a thrill to seek the intercession of a saint, whose hand I shook, with whom I concelebrated Mass, and with whom I conversed. St. John Paul II, pray for me and the people of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas! Amen.
Editor’s note: For Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher’s reflection on Blessed John XXIII, see page 10.