On the fifteenth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s death, here’s the story of the time I got to meet the Pope.
En route to a semester of seminary studies in Jerusalem back in 1996, I spent a week in Rome, and had the chance to see the Pope John Paul II twice… once at a Wednesday audience, and once at a Sunday Mass celebrated at Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence.
Meeting the Pope was without question one of the happiest moments of my life. He is the kindest, warmest person I have ever met, to say nothing of his intelligence, virtue and holiness. I have great respect for the man, even from a merely human point of view… and so to meet him, after reading so much of his work, was a real privilege.
The day before I met him, I thought long and hard about what I would say to him. I was wearing a clerical shirt with a Roman collar, so he would already know that I was a seminarian. I couldn’t think of anything for a while, and thought I might tell him my name, where I was from, and show him a picture of my family. But then I decided I needed to keep it simple, because I’d probably just trip over my tongue anyway.
During the Mass, just before I met him, he seemed very frail and weak. But when he walked around afterward, he didn’t seem weak at all. He passed by rather quickly; there was just enough time to make eye contact, and then to reach down to kiss his papal ring. Then he was on to the next person.
I thought I had lost my opportunity to say something to him. But I decided to speak up anyway, even though he had moved on. And so I said, not very loudly, “I love you, Papa.” He heard me, returned to me and took my hand again, looking at me in his gentle way. He then turned to my teacher, a priest on the seminary faculty, and asked with surprise: “Americano?” When my teacher confirmed this, the Pope looked back at me and said, “Good… good.”
I was so grateful for the chance to say these words to the Pope in person. Here he was—the philosopher, the poet, the actor, the pastor, the courageous shepherd, the contemplative, a true friend of God—standing before me, and I was able to express my affection for him. And it wasn’t simply my affection for him, but for the Church he serves, and for Christ from whom he received his commission of service. For me, it was more than a pious sentiment, it was a commitment… to Christ, to the Church, and to him as chief shepherd of the Church.
When my faith grows weak, or when temptation or doubt crowd in, I often bring this moment of commitment before the eyes of my heart. And I remember the way I was sincerely and affectionately received by this giant of our faith. To me, his whole visage proclaims the first words of Christ after the resurrection, and the first words of his papacy: Be not afraid.