remembering John Paul II

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.

XI: Jesus is nailed to the Cross

John the Beloved watches as the body of Christ is elevated on the Cross. He remembers the words of the Master as He elevated the unleavened bread: “This is my body… do this in memory of me.” The Supreme Teacher does not want us to forget that love is self-offering, and so the meal He asks us to share, again and again until the end of time, takes the very shape of His sacrifice.

Christ’s blood reveals to man that his greatness, and therefore his vocation, consists in the sincere gift of self. Precisely because it is poured out as the gift of life, the blood of Christ is no longer a sign of death, of definitive separation from the brethren, but the instrument of a communion which is richness of life for all. Whoever in the Sacrament of the Eucharist drinks this blood and abides in Jesus is drawn into the dynamism of his love and gift of life, in order to bring to its fullness the original vocation to love which belongs to everyone…. It is from the blood of Christ that all draw the strength to commit themselves to promoting life. It is precisely this blood that is the most powerful source of hope, indeed it is the foundation of the absolute certitude that in God’s plan life will be victorious.

Saint Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life

may I suggest…

you take five minutes to listen to this song?

There’s no time like the present.

May I suggest
May I suggest to you
May I suggest this is the best part of your life

May I suggest
This time is blessed for you
This time is blessed and shining almost blinding bright

Just turn your head
And you’ll begin to see
The thousand reasons that were just beyond your sight
The reasons why
Why I suggest to you
Why I suggest this is the best part of your life

There is a world
That’s been addressed to you
Addressed to you, intended only for your eyes
A secret world
Like a treasure chest to you
Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerize
A lover’s trusting smile
A tiny baby’s hands
The million stars that fill the turning sky at night
Oh I suggest
Oh I suggest to you
Oh I suggest this is the best part of your life

There is a hope
That’s been expressed in you
The hope of seven generations, maybe more
And this is the faith
That they invest in you
It’s that you’ll do one better than was done before
Inside you know
Inside you understand
Inside you know what’s yours to finally set right
And I suggest
Yes I suggest to you
Yes I suggest this is the best part of your life

This is a song
Comes from the west to you
Comes from the west, comes from the slowly setting sun
This is a song
With a request
With a request of you
To see how very short the endless days will run
And when they’re gone
And when the dark descends
Oh we’d give anything for one more hour of light
And I suggest this is the best part of your life

Susan Werner, May I Suggest, from the album Live at Passim

IMG_4740
I think Pope Saint John Paul II was singing in the same key when he wrote:

We need first of all to foster, in ourselves and in others, a contemplative outlook. Such an outlook arises from faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a “wonder” (cf. Ps. 139:14). It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image (cf. Gen 1:27; Ps. 8:5). This outlook does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death’s door. Instead, in all these situations it feels challenged to find meaning, and precisely in these circumstances it is open to perceiving in the face of every person a call to encounter, dialogue and solidarity.

It is time for all of us to adopt this outlook, and with deep religious awe to rediscover the ability to revere and honour every person, as Paul VI invited us to do in one of his first Christmas messages. Inspired by this contemplative outlook, the new people of the redeemed cannot but respond with songs of joy, praise and thanksgiving for the priceless gift of life, for the mystery of every individual’s call to share through Christ in the life of grace and in an existence of unending communion with God our Creator and Father.

Pope Saint John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, paragraph 83

Our freedom and our vocation is always found in the moment, in that place where time touches eternity. Not in tomorrow or yesterday:

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages, Four Quartets

Slowing down to be grateful for what life has given us here and now, to be aware of the invitation that is uniquely expressed in this moment, in this place, in this person, can set us free, no matter what the circumstances may be.

Very often we feel restricted in our situation, our family, or our surroundings. But maybe the real problem lies elsewhere: in our hearts. There we are restricted, and that is the root of our lack of freedom. If we loved more, love would give our lives infinite dimensions, and we would no longer feel so hemmed in.

This doesn’t mean objective situations don’t sometimes exist that need to be changed, or oppressive circumstances that need to be remedied before the heart can experience real interior freedom. But quite often we may also be suffering from a certain confusion. We blame our surroundings, while the real problem is elsewhere: our lack of freedom stems from a lack of love. We judge ourselves to be the victims of difficult circumstances, when the real problem (and its solution) is within us. Our heart is imprisoned by our selfishness or fears, and it is we who need to change, to learn how to love, letting ourselves be transformed by the Holy Spirit; that is the only way of escaping from our sense of confinement. People who haven’t learned how to love will always feel like victims; they will feel restricted wherever they are. But people who love never feel restricted.  That is what little Saint Thérèse (of Lisieux) taught me.

Father Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom

Or in the words of Susan Werner:

There is a world
That’s been addressed to you
Addressed to you, intended only for your eyes
A secret world
Like a treasure chest to you
Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerize
A lover’s trusting smile
A tiny baby’s hands
The million stars that fill the turning sky at night
Oh I suggest
Oh I suggest to you
Oh I suggest this is the best part of your life

Fr. Walter Ciszek: on the Eucharist

On the feast of Corpus Christi, a few thoughts from Father Walter Ciszek, SJ:

daucau monstrance

in the Nazi labor camp of Daucau, priests gathered scraps of wood to fashion a monstrance that could be used for the adoration of the Eucharist

When I reached the prison camps of Siberia, I learned to my great joy that it was possible to say Mass daily once again. In every camp, the priests and prisoners would go to great lengths, run risks willingly, just to have the consolation of this sacrament. For those who could not get to Mass, we daily consecrated hosts and arranged for the distribution of Communion to those who wished to receive. Our risk of discovery, of course, was greater in the barracks, because of the lack of privacy and the presence of informers. Most often, therefore, we said our daily Mass somewhere at the work site during the noon break. Despite this added hardship, everyone observed a strict Eucharistic fast from the night before, passing up a chance for breakfast and working all morning on an empty stomach. Yet no one complained. In small groups the prisoners would shuffle into the assigned place, and there the priest would say Mass in his working clothes, unwashed, disheveled, bundled up against the cold. We said Mass in drafty storage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation of an underground. The intensity of devotion of both priests and prisoners made up for everything; there were no altars, candles, bells, flowers, music, snow-white linens, stained glass or the warmth that even the simplest parish church could offer. Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine. The realization of what was happening on the board, box, or stone used in the place of an altar penetrated deep into the soul. Distractions caused by the fear of discovery, which accompanied each saying of the Mass under such conditions, took nothing away from the effect that the tiny bit of bread and few drops of consecrated wine produced upon the soul.Many a time, as I folded up the handkerchief on which the body of our Lord had lain, and dried the glass or tin cup used as a chalice, the feeling of having performed something tremendously valuable for the people of this Godless country was overpowering. Just the thought of having celebrated Mass here, in this spot, made my journey to the Soviet Union and the sufferings I endured seem totally worthwhile and necessary. No other inspiration could have deepened my faith more, could have given me spiritual courage in greater abundance, than the privilege of saying Mass for these poorest and most deprived members of Christ the Good Shepherd’s flock. I was occasionally overcome with emotion for a moment as I thought of how he had found a way to follow and to feed these lost and straying sheep in this most desolate land. So I never let a day pass without saying Mass; it was my primary concern each new day. I would go to any length, suffer any inconvenience, run any risk to make the bread of life available to these men.

Fr. Walter J Ciszek, SJ – in He Leadeth Me

remembering papa

On the ninth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s passing, I thought I’d share the story of the time I got to meet the Pope. Here’s a picture from the moment.

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: “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.