Monday, May 09, 2011
An Unexpected Blessing – Our Moment with Blessed John Paul II
When we arrived in Rome in November 1997, we expected to see the Sistine Chapel, the Spanish Steps, and the Coliseum. We never expected to see – let alone receive a blessing from -- the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. I had visited Rome several times and had never caught so much as a papal wave from the balcony.
Dave and I had planned to go to Europe the year we were married, but within a few months of the wedding, we were expecting a baby. Tim actually turned two somewhere between Iceland and mainland Europe as we winged over the Atlantic. We spent a few weeks touring Germany and France and then headed south to Italy. We arrived on an overnight train from Innsbruck and met our friends, Father George, a Dominican priest, and Father John, a pastor from a nearby parish. Father John offered us tickets to a canonization Mass.
We arrived in Saint Peter’s square along with 95,000 other visitors. Most adjectives fall flat in trying to capture the size and majesty of Christendom’s largest basilica. The holy water fonts alone are about eight feet tall. Baby Tim loved the ones shaped like angels. He would grab the angels’ toes and yell “piggies!” Oh so pious! We were still working on the sign of the cross.
We were seated in the back third of the church near the wall, which is to say, a l-o-n-g way from the altar and a l-o-n-g way from the aisle. For perspective, many people carried binoculars. In 1997 Pope John Paul was frail but still ambulatory. I heard people murmuring about whether he would be well enough to process in. As the opening hymn began, there he was – stoop shouldered and moving slowly – our beloved Pope. He looked very weak, and his face had a translucent cast to it.
Mass was beautiful. Our first miracle was that Tim was perfectly at peace for the entire celebration which ran well over two hours, if memory serves.
As the recessional hymn began, Pope John Paul moved slowly down the aisle on the opposite side, far from us. Suddenly Father George picked up Tim and made his way to the aisle. Not an easy feat! I think the habit helped part the seas. The Pope turned slightly, caught sight of Tim, and immediately walked over to him. He laid his hands on Tim’s head and prayed for him.
Everyone around us was saying “Bambino! Bambino!” When they caught sight of me crying, they patted my shoulders and said ”Madre! Madre!” Truly, this was all so unexpected.
I came away with two observations. First, I was struck by the love these thousands and thousands of Catholics had for their Pope. I had watched news coverage of the papal Mass at Word Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. I knew dozens of people who had travelled to meet the pope and had heard their accounts of the joy the faithful found in the presence of Pope John Paul and the joy he had demonstrated in being with them. “John Paul Two, we love you,” the kids chanted. The Pope responded “John Paul Two, he loves you, too!” The mainstream media missed this message entirely.
Here I was in Rome, crying in the presence of this great and holy man, the chief shepherd of my church. When it became clear that he was not only well enough to celebrate Mass, but was able to process into the church, the excitement was palpable. We loved our Pope, all of us.
My second observation was the stark contrast I witnessed in the Pope’s appearance before and after Mass. After celebrating and receiving the Eucharist, Pope John Paul looked ten years younger. His smile – partially caught by this photograph – was radiant. He face appeared changed and his gait was livelier. Clearly, visibly, our Pope drew strength from this great sacrament and from the love of his people.
I never expected to meet the Pope. I never anticipated that I would cry in his presence. We talked often about Papa Giovanni in the days that followed. He became Papa Banni to two-year-old Tim. This photo graces our living room wall, a sweet memento of an unexpected blessing.