Santo Subito! Remembering Pope John Paul II

Meeting Pope John Paul II, 2004
Today we recall the 11th anniversary of the return home to God of Blessed John Paul II. When he came to Ireland in 1979, I viewed this historical event from the tranquility of my mother’s womb (I was born a few months after!). My father, who played the french horn in the Band of the Western Command was part of the military band for the occasion and played at the Papal Mass in Knock. So did my godfather Gerry Lacey too who wrote about this in an interview with the Westmeath Independent here. I felt I could say ‘I was there too’. Little did I know some years after I would meet JP II face to face and have the opportunity to speak to him and tell him about this little antedote. Our God is truly a God of surprises!

Never in a million years did I ever contemplate being in Rome for such memorable events: the death of our beloved John Paul II, a conclave, and the consequent election of Pope Benedict XVI. I had come to Rome three years previous and as I attended the various ceremonies in St. Peter’s Square, I couldn’t help but notice the steady decline in Pope John Paul’s health but I never thought about him dying. I belonged to the ‘JP II Generation’, the generation that were born during his papacy.

As the Pope’s sickness progressed Rome began to prepare for the worst and the world began to move in a way which had never been witnessed. The evening before Pope John Paul II died, about 70,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square below the pope’s bedroom window at the Vatican. Many were young people. When the Holy Father’s aides told him of the sight, he gave them a message to deliver to the young crowd: “I have sought you out. Now you have come to me. I thank you.” I was one of those young people, newly professed as a sister. After hearing these words, I hopped on the Metro the next day and in ten minutes I was in St. Peter’s Square and what a sight which awaited me! There were young people everywhere, in little groups, praying the Rosary, singing, playing guitars, dancing.  It was a like a mini World Youth Day. Everybody’s eyes were fixed on that little apartment window where the Pope had so often greeted us. His pilgrimage was nearing its end and would have its conclusion that very night.

Meeting Pope John Paul II
Later on in the week our sisters from the various communities in Rome were asked to take turns in praying beside the Holy Father’s body as it was laid out in the Basilica and to guide the singing and the Rosary for the never-ending queues of people who lined the Basilica, the Square and even the streets outside. Just as we have in the Adoration Chapel in White’s Cross and in Athlone, we also have Eucharistic Adoration in St. Peter’s Basilica, a presence which was requested by this same Pope when he began his papacy. It was such a privilege to kneel in prayer beside the man whom had changed the world and my life too. His fire for the truth and the Gospel and his genuine love for the young people are such an inspiration. He has taught us not to be afraid to ‘throw open our hearts to Christ’. Looking back at it now the Lord prepared everything in a very special way as during that time, He called my own grandmother to be with Him too during those days.

The Pope's funeral was a spectacular event with over three million people there and even then the question on everybody’s lips was ‘who is going to be the next Pope’. As our Liturgical Centre is right under St. Mary Major’s Basilica, it was hard not to hear the bells ring out to announce that the new Pope had been elected. I ran out into the streets and all you could hear were bells ringing. There are over 70 churches in the local area so imagine the noise! People were stopped dead in their tracks, others groped for mobiles to try and get the latest news. ‘Habemus papam’- our new Pope is Benedict theXVI  or B16 as our young people fondly baptised him. During his time Pope Benedict continued to build bridges of communion and dialogue with us. JP II already put down the foundation stones and together we will be the Church of today and build the Church of tomorrow, being led at this time with Pope Francis as pastor of the Church.

Pope John Paul II spoke frequently to young people about the call to holiness and the vocation to be saints. Pope John Paul II was not only the “Holy Father” but a Father who was and is Holy. The Church celebrated when was proclaimed a saint on the 27th of April 2014, together with Pope John the 23rd. Let us ask for his intercession and for the courage to be saints for today’s world!