by Jeremy Priest
The first time I met Pope John Paul II…well, perhaps “met” is the wrong word when you’re in a crowd of seven million people? Yet, as I think back to that World Youth Day in the Philippine Islands, “met” is the only word that describes what happened. I didn’t merely see John Paul II. No. Even in a crowd of millions, I had the feeling that he loved me. As his eyes fell upon each of us, I felt loved by him, as if his eyes were the very eyes of Jesus.
I can imagine Jesus looking at people with these same eyes. Pope John Paul II had so given himself to the Heart of Jesus that his eyes spoke with the Heart of Jesus. One can understand why the crowd that gathered that World Youth Day in the Philippines was the largest crowd ever assembled in human history: these young people gathered not simply to see Pope John Paul II; they crowded around the Bishop of Rome because in him they saw Christ.
Like the Philippines and so many other places Pope John Paul II visited, millions thronged the city of Rome when he died in April of 2005. They flooded the streets of Rome to be with him, to mourn his death, to rejoice in his life. They flooded the streets of Rome because they had lost a man who had become their “father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). One of my friends, a Protestant pastor, confided in me that after he heard the news that John Paul II died he immediately felt compelled to find the nearest Catholic church and pray. He had lost a father too.
This celibate man who so many of us knew as a spiritual father (pope means ‘papa’), thought that the 20th century had gone off track. Amidst the horrors of the 20th century (two world wars, millions of corpses, oceans of blood), Pope John Paul II thought that we as human beings had forgotten what it means to be human. He was convinced that in Jesus Christ we experience and see what it means to be human. John Paul II never tired of quoting these words from the Second Vatican Council: “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (GS 22). Only through faith in Jesus will we find our way again.
Pope John Paul II has been described as a “Witness to Hope.” This poet, this playwright, this worker, who was philosopher, theologian, pastor, teacher, bishop, and pope; this man who was so many things was, at the last, a disciple of Jesus Christ and a witness (the Greek word is “martyr”) to hope: a witness to the hope that fills our lives when our eyes are fixed on Jesus.
On this day we celebrate his Beatification, his becoming a “Blessed.” While I still deeply miss him, as soon as he died I had the feeling that he was closer to me than he had been before. The Catholic doctrine of the Communion of Saints says that death cannot separate us from our brothers and sisters in Christ: they are more alive in God now than when they were living with us here on earth. And so, on this Divine Mercy Sunday, the liturgical anniversary of his death, his entry into eternal life, we both miss him and simultaneously know his closeness to us.
These are the closing words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2005 funeral homily for Pope John Paul II:
None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing urbi et orbi. We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.