How does a kid from Flint, Mich., who was raised by Hindu parents, end up getting baptized by Pope John Paul II and working in the Vatican?
This is the sort of incredulous — though mostly respectful — question I’ve had to answer more than a few times during the past 15 years. Usually it is asked with a sense of wonder and gratitude, but sometimes there has been a little envy mixed in — most of the people asking the question are practicing Catholics who greatly admire John Paul II. I must admit I’ve done nothing to deserve the honor of traveling such a journey.
Even though my parents are Hindu, they had enough respect and admiration for Catholic education — and especially for the priests and nuns who ran the schools — to start their two children at the now-closed St. Mary Queen of Angels. My first teachers were Polish Benedictine sisters who did not shy away from discipline and often used the one non-baptized student who did his religion homework as an example for the others.
While I studied Catholicism and attended Mass on Fridays with the rest of the students, the Catholic faith was something I observed from the outside. At best, I was a “fan” of Catholicism; all my teachers and friends were Catholics, but no one ever suggested that I convert. They simply were good examples and instruments through whom God would eventually call me into the Church.
After Catholic primary and secondary school, I attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where hardly anybody paid much attention to religion, aside from the random Campus Crusade for Christ kid who would show up at my dorm room. It was the late 1980s, and, studying political science and economics as well as working for a student newspaper, I developed a strong admiration for the three leaders who would eventually bring down the Berlin Wall — Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II.
As John O’Sullivan relates in his book The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, these three figures came into their respective offices in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when their doing so was anything but inevitable. “All three were handicapped by being too sharp, clear, and definite in an age of increasingly fluid identities and sophisticated doubts,” he writes. “Put simply, Wojtyla was too Catholic, Thatcher too conservative, and Reagan too American.” As someone whose political and economic ideas were being formed at the time, I cannot overemphasize the influence they had on my way of thinking.
Admiring John Paul II as a Cold Warrior is not the same thing as becoming Catholic, however. The negative reactions of those Catholics who supported Reagan and Thatcher to the U.S. Bishops’ pastoral letters on war and peace (1983) and on economic justice (1986) made me skeptical about Catholic social teaching. But all that changed when I read Father Richard John Neuhaus’s book Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (1992), a lucid commentary on John Paul II’s 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus. I remember thinking, “If this is how a Catholic should think about social issues, sign me up!”
Of course, it wasn’t simply up to me; becoming a Catholic is as much about God’s calling you as your choosing God. It took a few more years of intellectual and spiritual inquiry, and loving guidance from faithful friends, before I entered the Catholic Church. I met my future godfather, Matthew, in the most unlikely of settings, a graduate seminar on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra at the University of Toronto. It was he who suggested we accompany a group of university students who travel to Rome every year during Holy Week and see if there was a way to get me baptized by the pope. I didn’t believe it would really happen and tried every excuse in the book not to go, but Matthew’s persistence and prayers paid off, and I finally said yes.
Along with nine other adults, I received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion from John Paul II at the 1996 Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. It was an amazing way to come into the Church, as we sat in front of all the cardinals, bishops, priests, and lay faithful with nothing separating us from the pope but the tomb of St. Peter. By that point in his pontificate, John Paul II’s health was deteriorating, and he seemed tired. But I recall how he openly wept after baptizing several East Asians who were dressed in their traditional garb. I still get goose bumps thinking about it.
I returned to my graduate studies for a year and helped out at the university student chaplaincy to learn more about the Church’s communal and evangelical life in Toronto. It was through that chaplaincy that I received the opportunity to work for the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations in New York. Given my political leanings and Midwestern upbringing, I was no fan of either the U.N. or New York, but I took the job anyway. I wanted most of all to represent John Paul II, who had given a brilliant speech to the U.N. General Assembly two years previously, focusing on the need for a “moral grammar” in society.
All in all, it was a trying but rewarding experience. Having to defend the Church’s teachings on abortion against the “family planning” and population-control crowd was quite a struggle, but one I would gladly engage in again. It was also a great opportunity to meet polyglot diplomats, committed NGO activists, and, most important, the priests, nuns, and laypeople who worked for the Holy See.
As a result of my time at the U.N., I received an offer to work for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which is the Vatican office responsible for promoting Catholic social teaching. Once again, the lure of working for John Paul II — this time in Rome — proved too strong to resist, and I became the staff official responsible for following disarmament and environmental issues. Not areas where I was likely to meet fellow conservatives, but so be it.
Working in the Vatican, I had the opportunity to meet John Paul II a few times, and it was always an edifying encounter. One of these encounters took place at the conclusion of a difficult meeting with Muslim theologians from Iran. The Iranians were experts in doublespeak and veiled everything they said with all kinds of platitudes, so it was refreshing to hear the pope insist on religious freedom and the rejection of religious-inspired terrorism and violence. Alas, we are still waiting for the fruits to appear.
I left the Vatican to become the director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office in January 2005, just three months before John Paul II’s death. The timing was fortunate, as it gave me the opportunity to speak about the pope in all kinds of media settings, which I would not have been able to do as a Vatican official. I’ll never forget being able to pay my respects when the pope’s body was placed in St. Peter’s Basilica, at the exact location where he received me into the Church, nine years earlier to the day, and just before the arrival of a few former U.S presidents. The funeral Mass was truly the “event of a generation,” as the NBC correspondent called it at the time — the JPII generation, of which I am a proud member.
Representing the Acton Institute in Rome has provided me with the opportunity to continue serving John Paul II’s vision of the free society, even as the challenges facing global capitalism have evolved. His successors, Pope Benedict XVI and especially Pope Francis, have taken up his call to bring forth an ethical understanding of economics that serves the poor and vulnerable. At the same time, John Paul II knew first-hand that human freedom and the desire to better one’s condition are an irrepressible force that cannot be permanently blunted by its enemies. The struggle for freedom must be taken up anew by each generation. But we must be grateful that Pope John Paul II, like Reagan and Thatcher, fought the good fight — and won.
— Kishore Jayabalan is the director of Istituto Acton, a think tank that addresses religion and economics, in Rome.