EDITOR’S NOTE: NRO asked a varied group to share some of their memories of Pope John Paul II, some very personal, some representative of how many will remember him, even a moment that changed lives. Thanks to Erin Carden for helping to compile these, which follow.
WILLIAM J. BENNETT
I was very fortunate, I was blessed, to have had the opportunity to meet with Pope John Paul II on two occasions. Once in 1986, and again in the summer of 2001. He blessed me, my wife, and sons. On the second occasion I rehearsed what I was going to say to him, and I pulled it off. When he blessed me, I said, “I am not afraid.”
Pope John Paul II lived his admonition, “Be not afraid” in every aspect of his life, and taught us with that life, most recently in the manner he conducted the end of his own. But throughout his papacy, he also stood strong against the currents of the culture. To borrow a phrase from Flannery O’Connor, he pushed as hard as the age that pushed against him. In so doing, he received both praise and criticism. The ultimate irony of John Paul was that he was contemporary but not post-modernist, and by sticking to and teaching about reliable standards of right and wrong, he especially drew the respect (and crowds) of the youth. They sensed his conviction; this was a man who did not do focus groups or polling.
Aristotle states that courage is the first virtue, because without it nothing else is possible. In Pope John Paul’s messages and life, he showed no fear: He was not afraid to stand against tyranny any more than he was afraid to personally forgive others, including those who wanted him dead, even his would-be assassin whom he visited in prison. He knew God and was able to teach the rest of us about Him–and now, with His message so well taught, God called the pope home, for a well-deserved servant’s rest. We will not see another Pope John Paul II anymore than we will see another Mother Teresa or Ronald Reagan, but as with them, we can continue to hear him.
–William J. Bennett is the host of the nationally syndicated radio show, Bill Bennett’s Morning in America, and the Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute.
About ten years ago my wife and I were in Rome and were privileged enough to attend a general audience with the pope. Since there were a few hundred people present, I didn’t think there was a ghost of chance that we would even get close to him. However, because of odd series of circumstances, we wound up standing about ten feet from him receiving his blessing. He seemed to be able to make eye contact with everyone. When his eyes came to mine, I could feel myself tremble and I knew I was in the presence of overwhelming grace and holiness. I got that feeling once before in my life, when my wife and I were privileged to meet Mother Teresa, and she took my hand in hers and looked at me and blessed me. We will soon be praying to St. Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II.
–Ed Capano is National Review’s publisher.
FR. BASIL COLE, O.P.
Some time in the later 1990s, after the beatification of Blessed Cormier, O.P., the pope wanted to visit his old alma mater, the Angelicum (University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome). During his visit, he gave a magnificent conference on St. Thomas Aquinas and the Dominican charism. After his speech, he made some off the cuff remarks and some jokes. He saw one bishop from Poland with whom he went to school with. He then remarked that the bishop had higher grades than himself, and so, he should have been the pope! Then to the surprise of many, he expressed a desire to meet all the professors of the Angelicum. There were many other Dominicans there, so they anointed themselves as professors “pro tem” and also went up to visit John Paul!
When my turn came to have my minute visit with the pope, I said to him, “Oremus pro invicem,” which means “let us pray for one another.” However, he could not understand me because of my American accent. He turned to our rector to find out what I said and then turned back to me and smiled but I forget what he said.
For the next three days, I felt a tremendous sense of consolation and inner peace like I had received to Holy Communion. After all, he was another and unique presence of Christ. And while I had studied almost all of his writings as pope up to that time, that one minute of his presence profoundly touched my heart more than all of his important writings.
–Father Basil Cole, O.P., is a moral theologian who teaches at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.
JUDE P. DOUGHERTY
Two images of the Holy Father that I cherish. One is that related by Hans-Georg Gadamer, perhaps the foremost German philosopher of the late 20th century. As Gadamer tells the story, he was attending a conference organized by John Paul II at Castel Gondolpho when the pope entered the room. He spotted Gadamer on the other side of the room and walked briskly to him with arms outstretch. Embracing Gadamer, the Holy Father said, “All my life I have wanted to meet Professor Gadamer.” It is significant that Gadamer was by no means a believer. We have here one philosopher recognizing the professional work of another. While Gadamer may not have been even a theist, his philosophical explorations were compatible with the phenomenology of John Paul II. The other image I cherish is that Of John Paul II in his last earthly days, feeble though he was, pounding on his laptop in front of him. President Regan may have been called the “Great Communicator,” but clearly the title rightly belongs to JP II.
SISTER SHELIA GALLIGAN
God blest me with a richly significant, personal encounter with John Paul II in 1983. After the extraordinary privilege of attending morning Mass in the pope’s own Chapel I was introduced to the pope: “Sister Sheila Galligan, American, studying at the Angelicum” The pope’s face was immediately miles of smiles. He grasped me by the shoulders (with a certainly sense of urgency, fiercely resolute) and exclaimed: “Ah, Sister Sheila! That is my school! This is good!” I hope my “eyes” spoke for I know I was quite speechless. I knew–by experience–the beauty of holiness. It was as C. S Lewis would say: a “moment that contained all moments!”
–Sister Sheila Galligan the chair and a professor of theology at Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.
ROBERT P. GEORGE
Persecution of Jews by Christians–including officials of the Church and even popes–is the great historical stain on the Christian conscience. This is not to suggest that all Christians or all Church officials have been anti-Semites–far from it. Indeed, many Christians–some still unsung–heroically came to the assistance of their Jewish brothers and sisters when the unspeakable evil of Nazism cast its shadow upon them. But crimes committed by professing Christians against Jews have been all-too-common in the history of the Church; and all-too-often Christians have rationalized these injustices in theological terms.
In the great document Nostre Aetate, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council struck a powerful blow against Christian anti-Semitism by declaring solemnly that the Jews as a people are not responsible, and must not be treated as if they were responsible, for the crucifixion of Jesus. This declaration laid the foundation for what would be Pope John Paul’s most memorable act for me. On April 13, 1986, the pontiff presented himself at the Great Synagogue of Rome at the invitation of the Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff. There he declared anti-Semitism to be a grave sin. But he did not stop there. He seized the opportunity to make a declaration which, in the perspective of the sad and tortured history of relations between Jews and Christians, can only be described as magnificent. He proclaimed that the Jews “are our brothers, and in a sense our elder brothers, in faith.”
Our elder brothers in faith. The pope went beyond the condemnation of prejudice and oppression to affirm from a Christian theological vantage point the continuing validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. While abandoning no portion of the Church’s witness to Jesus as the Messiah, the pope with a single sentence destroyed the foundation of the false doctrine of supercessionism by which some Christians since the time of Marcion have attempted to sever Christianity from its Jewish roots, maintaining that God’s covenant with the Jews was abolished and replaced by His “new covenant” with the Church.
Years later, in another magnificent moment, the pope would make a dramatic gesture of repentance and reconciliation towards the Jewish people while praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. But for me, his one-mile journey across the City of Rome to the Great Synagogue was the most memorable event in a pontificate filled with unforgettable moments.
–Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
I had refused to be confirmed in high school, had stopped going to Mass, and considered the Catholic faith one among other undesirable ’70s eccentricities of church ladies in Tucson, Arizona. I had as much interest in it as I had in macramé.
Through a bizarre set of circumstances, I transferred into a great books program in San Francisco for college. I tried to fit in as best I could with the hardcore Catholics I was surprised to find there.
In September of that year–1987–the pope was visiting San Francisco, and a group of students were going to Geary Avenue to see him pass by. Weird, but whatever–I was trying to fit in. I went along. There was no good place to stand so I climbed up a small, slender tree to get a better view–and to add some element of interest to the pointless thing we were doing.
Then I saw the pope pass by. You’ve heard the experience described elsewhere. It caught me totally by surprise. How watching a small man behind bullet-proof glass in a moving vehicle could touch me so profoundly I still have a hard time understanding. I remember sitting in the tree after he passed, numb. He had blessed the crowd. It had worked.
My life changed direction after that–slowly, to be sure, but unmistakably. And now, most of my career has been spent, simply, doing what the man I saw from the tree wanted done. I was like Zacchaeus. John Paul had shown me Christ.
On the night the pope died, I asked my wife, April, when she first saw him. It was September, 1987. She was clueless about the Catholic faith, but was brought to an event with the Pope. Her youth group got seats right next to a little stage where an armless singer, Tony Melendez, played a song for the pope. April and her friends were shocked when John Paul jumped off the stage and walked over to embrace him.
He changed her life’s trajectory, too. After that experience, she chose my school in San Francisco in order to learn more about her faith.
I was startled. Here we were, two West Coasters sitting in the darkness of a cold Connecticut spring night, with the Pope’s image flickering on the screen and our six children sleeping upstairs, and all of it–that we met, where we worked, the number of kids–it had all started with him.
Then–I kid you not–the new baby started crying upstairs. April stood up. “I’d better go nurse John Paul,” she said.
–Tom Hoopes is executive editor of The National Catholic Register and with his wife, April, is editorial co-director of Faith & Family magazine.
We were in Rome when John Paul II was elected Pope, and, like most people, I didn’t know much about him. Most of the commentary at that time described the Conclave’s decision in political terms, and Karol Wojtyla was said to be a “detente pope,” a gesture of peace toward the Soviets.
I went over to Communist-party headquarters in Via delle Botteghe Oscure to ask them what they thought of it, and one of the real hardline Stalinists put it nicely: “Well,” he said, “at least our Polish comrades won’t have him around to (and here he used a colorful Roman phrase that roughly means ‘give them a hard time.’).
The Communist knew what he was talking about, and the scribblers and kibbitzers didn’t. For Catholics, John Paul II will obviously be an inspiration for generations, and even those of us who do not share his faith have been ennobled and inspired by much of what he said and did. But for the entire world, he will forever stand as a symbol of the power of individuals standing firm for freedom. “Be Not Afraid” is indeed the phrase we will associate with him, as it was the phrase that inspired millions of people to risk all against tyranny.
I had the good fortune to be a sort of informal ambassador to the Vatican when I worked for Secretary of State Haig, in the early 1980s, and I met several times with the pope’s personal secretaries, one Polish the other African. Contrary to the nonsensical accounts of various imaginative journalists, these conversations had nothing to do with covert action, but everything to do with a mutual search for understanding world events. John Paul’s closest associates were at once brilliant, patient and constantly inquiring. They even had moments of dry humor, as when one of them asked me, “Ledeen, how can it be that in all the world, only the CIA does not know who tried to kill the Holy Father?” HoHO.
John Paul II was a towering figure at a time when the world abounded in great men and women: Reagan, Thatcher, Juan Carlos, Deng Xiaoping, Walesa, Havel, Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky, Sharansky, Nakasone etc. He had many things to do, and he accomplished most of his mission.
It’s the mark of a world historical figure that we see him shaping great events, rather than simply “being there” when big things happen. Such was John Paul II, and all of us will feel diminished at his passing.
FATHER C. J. MCCLOSKEY III
I arrived in Rome on October 1, 1978 just in time to wake John Paul II in St. Peter’s . Two weeks later I witnessed the election of John Paul II and a week later his installation as Supreme Pontiff. Hence both in my preparation for holy orders and actual priesthood have been day by day and year by year inextricably tied up with his papal person and teachings. Along with St. Josemaria Escriva and Venerable John Henry Newman, he has served as the model for my priestly pastoral work and apostolate during the last 27 years.
At the heart of his pontificate has been his desire to proclaim Christ particularly through the prism of the greatest ecclesial event of his lifetime: the Second Vatican Council of which he was a father. Through his person and preaching, he as given given us the correct interpretation of those teachings and has set the agenda for the Church for many, many decades ahead. At the heart of his teaching is that all are called to holiness in the middle of the world and that is achieved above all, through the contemplative life of grace that is gained through the sacraments and prayer that lead to the imitation of Christ in his “sincere gift of self” to others.
I concelebrated the Mass with the pope with many other priests in Rome in ‘92 and at World Youth Days in Paris in ‘97 and Czestochowa in ‘91, in the driving rain in Giant Stadium in New Jersey in ‘95. But the last time was on another level. In January 2002, I concelebrated with a small group of priests in his private chapel sitting just a few steps behind him, watching the intensity of his prayer before Mass. Listening to his groanings filled with the Holy Spirit, and the agonizing, slow, painful renewal of the Holy Sacrifice of a man wracked with pain and exhaustion with the burden of the whole world on his hunched over shoulders. There I learned the historical and unique greatness of John Paul II–where he got his strength from–his identification with Christ on the Cross and the centrality of the Mass and Eucharist in his life. From this came his effectiveness, his holiness and his Greatness. As we came out, he gave each one of us a rosary because when or where Christ or the pope or ourselves are on the Cross, Mary is always at our side to comfort us.
–Father C. J. McCloskey III is a research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute based in Washington D.C.
SISTER RENEE MIRKES
Although I have had the privilege of meeting with John Paul II on three different occasions, the first audience was, for me, the most memorable. It was in February of 1997, I was in Vatican City attending the Pontifical Academy of Life conference. By the fourth day of meetings, I distinctly recall being exhilarated and in mental overload at the same time. But as I filed into the Clement XII room to meet with the pope, I knew the conference planners had definitely saved the best wine for the last. I–and everyone around me–was electrified by the approaching figure of this holy man of God. I sensed keenly that every last one of us clung to every last word he spoke that day. And when he finished, and we formed a line to greet him personally, all the information whirling around inside my head seemed to fall into place. Taking my hand in both of his, John Paul II made me feel as if I was the only person–is it possible–the only Catholic in the world. He looked into my eyes in a way that assured me he was keenly and genuinely interested in knowing me–who I was, where I was from, what I did at the Pope Paul VI Institute. And so, on that day in February, 1997, through the visible head of the Church, I had met the invisible God.
–Sister Renee Mirkes is the ethics director at the Pope Paul VI Institute.
There was no place on earth, no matter how bleak, to which John Paul would not travel to spread God’s word. In the early 1990s bleakness reached its peak in Albania. Isolated from the world for 40 years under the maniacal misrule of its Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, Albania was only beginning to be reconnected to the rest of Europe. Geopolitically, it counted for next to nothing. Most Albanians weren’t even Christian. Hoxha had tried to eradicate all religions, none more so than Catholicism.
When the papal plane touched down on April 25, 1993, Albanians’ pent-up spiritual fervor detonated. The centerpiece of John Paul’s one-day visit was the rededication of the country’s only Catholic cathedral in Shkoder, which Hoxha had turned into a gymnasium.
With his trademark smile and twinkling eyes, the pope accepted one flower at a time from a long line of little girls. He kissed them tenderly on the cheek, stroked their shining hair, drew his thumb across their foreheads in the sign of the cross. It was the purest demonstration of love, the diametric opposite of the tales of priestly abuse that would surface a decade later. Said one withered spectator in the crowd, “This man from Rome is a good man.”
That day, Albania returned to the flock of the Good Shepherd, embraced by His vicar on earth.
–John Moody is senior vice president of Fox News and the author of Pope John Paul II: A Biography, published by Random House.
Father GERALD E. MURRAY
The concluding Mass of the January 1998 visit to Cuba was offered by His Holiness at an altar on a large platform constructed on the vast Plaza Marti in Havana. I was one of the hundreds of priests concelebrating the Mass. We were stationed at ground level in front of the altar, on the right side. On the left were Castro and his retinue. All through the Mass I could see both pope and despot. The pope spoke about the nature of a just society and the innate dignity of man. Castro looked like a Mafia Don trying to appear calm and respectful before the sentencing judge. At one point the assembled faithful, arrayed behind us, began chanting “The pope wants us to be free!” I was stirred to hear the silenced Cuban people shout out this cry for help in plain earshot of the dictator who tramples on their souls daily. At the end of the Mass the Pope departed from his prepared remarks to give a message of hope to the sorely tried Cuban faithful, saying: “The Spirit blows where He wills.” The pope and the Holy Spirit gave hope to an oppressed people.
After Mass, Castro departed in a bullet-proof Mercedes limousine. Why was I surprised by this? Alas, that car still travels the roads of the devastated nation. But the Spirit stills blows where He wills, and one day the pope’s message of hope will become a reality for this part of Christ’s flock on earth. The pope is dead. Long live the pope.
–Rev. Gerald Murray is pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Manhattan.
CHRISTOPHER J. NOWAK
I was born in 1975, so Pope John Paul II is basically the only ppe I’ve ever known. Faced for the first time with the reality of a new one, I’m starting to understand how much I underestimated the man. “You mean all popes don’t write the way he does? Aren’t they all that charismatic? Don’t they all stare down Communism and force Eastern Europe to blink?” They don’t. He did.
–Christopher J. Nowak is a writer in Hollywood.
Pope John Paul II was a major figure in my conversion to Catholicism. Even during my days of neo-pagan darkness, the Pope’s shining example of courage in the face of communist oppression in his homeland was a beacon of heroic light in a murky world. The importance of the Pope with regard to the fall of the Soviet bloc cannot be overstressed. He is, alongside Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a giant figure of inspiration for those who fought for freedom during the decades of Soviet tyranny. Following my conversion, I had the great honor and privilege to have seen him on several occasions, mostly in Rome but also during World Youth Day in 1991 in his native Poland. Experiencing the love of the Poles for their homegrown Pope, especially so soon after the fall of the communist regime, is something I will always cherish. My most memorable encounter with the Holy Father was on my honeymoon in Rome in April 2001 when my wife and I had our marriage blessed by him. What a perfect way for Susannah and I to begin our married life together!
–Joseph Pearce is author of Tolkien: Man and Myth and editor of Tolkien: A Celebration, both published by Ignatius Press.
A priest with the Catholic lay movement, Communion and Liberation, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete lives in New York. Mgr. Albacete got to know Karol Wojtyla long before the Polish bishop became pope, and recently he told me this story about his old friend.
During a visit to Rome several years ago, Mgr. Albacete found himself invited to the Vatican for lunch with the pope, then learned that he was invited to Milan for a meeting with the founder of Communion and Liberation, Fr. Luigi Giussani, on the very same day–and that Giussani would be unable to see him at any other time.
Mgr. Albacete telephoned the pope’s office, explained the problem, and asked if his lunch with the Pope could be moved back a day. The voice on the other line hesitated, explaining that he was unable to recall such a request in all the long years of John Paul’s papacy, but then, checking the pope’s schedule, at last agreed. The next day Mgr. Albacete traveled to Milan, where he saw Giussani, a much-loved and holy man. And the day after that Mgr. Albacete presented himself at the Apostolic Palace.
Greeting Mgr. Albacete with a twinkle in his eye, John Paul took him by the arm, then asked a question. The pontiff’s office would already have told John Paul the answer, but the pontiff was unable to resist. “Lorenzo,” John Paul said, “This office that I hold–this office has a certain dignity. I must know. Who was so important that you put off having lunch with the pope?”
The Honorable ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN
The pope came to Miami in Sept 1987. I had just given birth to Patricia Marie and I so wanted to be present to hear and see him at Tropical Park, which is in my old state-senate district, but the doctors told me that I could not attend. However, as I watched on TV, I remember thinking how fitting it was that I would be holding my newborn baby in my arms, while watching the staunchest defender of human life praying and saying mass in my hometown. It was a feeling that I have never and shall never forget. The Holy Father can never imagine how he touched, in a most profound way, all those that heard and saw him wherever he traveled with his goodness and fierce protection of the sanctity of life.
–Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a Republican congresswoman from Florida.
My memory is at least partially of regret for I almost missed it all.
I missed his beginning because I was not yet a Catholic in 1979.
I missed those early days because, after conversion in 1985, I fell away from the practice of my faith; you might say I wanted to be in the house but was not yet ready to clean up my room.
I missed the middle years because when in 1993 I reengaged my faith I did so through the traditionalists, a movement notoriously dismissive of this pope.
I almost missed it all.
In 1998 friends pestered me to read the pope’s work and I stoutly resisted. Eventually I surrendered and I discovered him in his writings. I discovered him in the documents of his Council, Vatican II. And I came to love him in George Weigel’s magisterial biography Witness to Hope. At long last I engaged the pope and began to live within the life of the Church.
I missed so much, though. I can see what I missed in a video of him meeting over the years with Opus Dei students in Rome. He laughs, jokes, and gently teases. He is manly and warm and charming. It was all so personal, immediate, fatherly. I missed all of that and it makes me sad.
At least I knew John Paul the Great in his final years, when he continued to teach us even when in the end he was mute. For these few years with him I will thank God all the days of my life.
–Austin Ruse is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Culture of Life Foundation.
SENATOR RICK SANTORUM
Karen and I have been blessed to have the opportunity to meet the pope on five separate occasions, three of which we were privileged to receive mass from him in his personal chapel. On one occasion, six years ago, Karen and I, and our children met the pope in his personal chapel. As we received mass, we were struck by the fervor in which Pope John Paul II prayed. As he knelt at the altar, he deeply and intensely involved himself in prayer.
On that same visit, we learned first hand how the pope was so very much like Christ. Each time the Pope stepped down to kneel before the altar, his face brightened and he would smile at one of our children. He looked and smiled at each of our children throughout the course of the mass, and hugged and kissed each one of them after mass. Pope John Paul II was a man deeply devoted to children and faithfully exemplified Matthew 19:14 when Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me.” On that day, his noticeable love and passion for others touched our lives and the lives of our children. We love the pope and will miss him dearly.
–Senator Rick Santorum is a Republican senator from Pennsylvania.
Father JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J.
The St. Paul Editions’ collection of John Paul II’s first major trip, to Puebla in Mexico, in January, 1979, contains a charming photo of the handsome new pope. He is wearing a Mexican cowboy hat, smiling, carrying a cute four year-old local girl.
We suspected it would be different.
Karol Wojtyla then goes into the Basilica of Guadalupe, where Mexican clergy were assembled. “You are priests and religious,” he told them. “You are not social or political leaders or officials of a temporal power.”
We suspected it would be different.
On the 40th anniversary of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, (March 2005), the dying pope wrote to the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace: “The theme of justice does not exhaust the social doctrine of the Church. The virtue of love that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation and motivates Christian commitment to justice must never be forgotten. It nevertheless remains unquestionable that the topic of justice is the basis for ‘the right ordering of human society.’”
Not by justice alone are we saved, though not without it.
It was different. That we now know.
–Father James V. Schall, S. J., is a professor of government at Georgetown University. He is author of, among other books, Another Sort of Learning.
“Do not weep,” John Paul II said to those attending him on his deathbed. “I am happy, and you should be as well, let us pray together with joy.”
To a world well-acquainted with his appetite for prayer, such sentiments–from a holy man who has reached his culmination–were not altogether unexpected.
But then the pontiff whispered words fraught with wonder and humility: “I have looked for you. Now, you come to me, and I thank you.”
We were told his remark was meant for the thousands of young people gathered below his window, but I am unconvinced. While it is true that John Paul’s pontificate took a pilgrim’s path, it was a path that sought out more than the company of man–rather, this pope’s evangelical wanderlust was ever an invitation to join him on a further quest, on an adventure during which he, like a stalwart captain would enjoin us to “be not afraid.”
“I have looked for you; now you come to me…” An adventure has ended in the paradoxical way of the mystic. John Paul II has left us a final reassurance: that which you pursue is before you and all around. Seek and you will find.
–The Anchoress, a Catholic blogger, writes here.