Today is the feast day of Pope St John Paul II. He is the only saint (so far) who directly impacted me in his own lifetime.
I met him once. Sort of. I was in St Peter’s Square on 6 October 2002, when he canonised St Josemaría Ecrivá. I was one pilgrim among half a million, but it was an exhilarating moment. He was my Holy Father. I loved him then, and I love him now.
Maybe my faith would be weaker without his influence. Maybe I wouldn’t love our Lord so much. Certainly, I wouldn’t be a priest. JP2 was a big factor in the discernment of my vocation.
I think John Paul impacted me because he was a saint. But not only that. He impacted me because we had a relationship, however remote.
I have many relatives and friends who weren’t impact the same way. Why? I think it’s because they weren’t in a relationship with him. Wojtyla was like a third grandfather to me, so his words and gestures and witness had a profound influence.
That’s the thing about saints. They’re not magic. Relationship is key. That’s why it’s important for you and I to become saints. JP2 may have had little or no impact on some family and friends, but we can have an impact, precisely because we are in relationship with them.
John Paul II was a rockstar pope, with a name and face recognised by millions. He was also a mystic, who apparently received extraordinary graces. In one sense he’s not the easiest guy to imitate. But in another, more important sense, we can follow his lead.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Polish pope’s press secretary, tells the story of the first time they prayed the rosary together. When they reached the first Our Father, and Navarro started reciting it, the pope raised a hand to quiet him, and explained apologetically that he liked to chant the Lord’s Prayer. Would that be okay? (Navarro, of course, consented.)
Navarro began by praying each Hail Mary at the normal pace he was accustomed to. But gradually, he fell into a much slower pace, following the lead of the pope, who almost relished each syllable. A prayer he normally prayed in 20 minutes took twice as long when he prayed it with John Paul II.
Bishop John Magee, the Irish bishop who was ‘secretary to three popes’ (Paul, JPI and JP2), relates a story which occurred just a few days after Wojtyla was elected pope. It was early in the day, before normal working hours, when Magee received an urgent request from some VIP to see the pope. He checked the chapel, then the pope’s office, the private sitting room, the dining room, and the pope’s bedroom, but the pope was nowhere to be found. In a state of mild panic, he told the pope’s Polish secretary, “We’ve lost the Holy Father!”
His Polish counterpart was dubious. “Did you check the chapel?”
“It was the first place I looked.”
“Look again. More carefully.”
Magee returned to the darkened chapel. The pope was not at his seat, or his at prie-dieu. But he was in the chapel after all: at the altar, embracing the tabernacle, crooning a Polish lullaby.
Now I’m not advocating slavish imitation of these practices. But it’s something we can adapt to our situation.
I spend a lot of time in the car, and I usually pray the rosary there. Mostly attending to the road (and kangaroos); only partly attentive to the mysteries I’m contemplating and words I’m praying. If your rosary is something similar, keep it up. It’s better than not praying the rosary.
But it’s not so hard to pray an extra decade some other time during the day, more closely imitating John Paul II’s way of praying. It must please our Lady very much.
I’m not in the habit of hugging the tabernacle — and I’m a priest, with after-hours access to churches, when no one else is around! If I had only normal access, I’d be even less eager to approach the sanctuary and make a spectacle of myself.
But still we can pay a short 5 minute visit to the Blessed Sacrament, and sing a song to the Lord under our breath, sitting in the pew. We can bring our smart phone, and show him the interesting photos we took this morning. We can repeat the exciting news a friend told us, or complain about the lousy customer service we experienced this afternoon.
I think our Lord craves that sort of easy familiarity. It’s not uncommon to speak to our closest friends for a just a few minutes, but every day, and about the every day. Why not Him?
I think if we live this way, coupling small acts of affection with more pious practices (not least frequent communion and frequent confession), we can have the impact of a JP2 on our circle of family and friends. The ‘orbit’ is much smaller, but the love of God is not.