Pope John Paul II has been a huge inspiration for me in my faith and my vocation as a priest. I was at seminary at the English College in Rome, from 1992 to 1997, and the Sunday timetable was designed so that we could get to St Peter’s for the Pope’s Angelus address between Mass and lunch.
It was wonderful to wander down to St Peter’s Square and join the crowds, especially if you had visitors staying with you; not just to see him – as a kind of tourist event or cultural icon – but to listen to him and above all to pray with him. The sense of ‘being in communion’ with the worldwide Church through your prayerful communion with St Peter’s successor was very strong.
Two personal memories stand out. Each year we had a different pastoral placement in Rome – some pastoral project that we got involved in once a week. One of these, for me, was working in a youth centre near St Peter’s. One week the team was invited to the Pope’s early morning Mass in his private chapel. We arrived all excited, like fans wanting to gawp at a celebrity, but we were suddenly caught up in an atmosphere of profound stillness and contemplation. He was there praying before the tabernacle. That’s all. But it felt as if he was carrying the needs of the whole Church in his heart, and as if the mystery and holiness of God were a living reality for him.
I think he was a contemplative, who lived continually in the presence of God. I was so keen not to reduce this prayerful encounter to an anecdote that I passed by the chance to buy the photo of our brief meeting afterwards – which I regret deeply now!
The other memory is the World Youth Day that took place in Rome in 2000. He was elderly and already quite frail, but when he came out to meet the young people – nearly two million of them – you could see how energised and open he was to them.
He was like a father, who somehow communicated a genuine love for everyone there, an almost personal concern, and a longing for them to know the beauty of Christ and the beauty of a life that is given to Christ. It seemed to touch everyone personally in a profound way.
He was a great teacher, a great leader; but it’s these personal memories of his goodness and holiness that seem to stand out for people – even those who never met him.
I don’t have the photo from that ‘private Mass’, just the memory; but I’ve got his Apostolic Blessing on the wall beside my desk, from the day of my ordination in 1998 – which makes up for it!
If you want some further reading about the beatification, here are some links to John Allen’s recent posts and articles:
- Beatification Q&A #1: What’s the rush?
- Beatification Q&A #2: What’s the deal with miracles?
- Beatification Q&A #3: Why make saints out of popes?
- Beatification Q&A #4: What’s the Divine Mercy connection?
- Beatification Q&A #5: Is it the pope or the papacy?
- In Death as in Life, John Paul a Sign of Contradiction
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