REMEMBERING SAINT JOHN PAUL II, PRAYING WITH HIM ALWAYS
That famous song sung by the Irish sensation Dana was etched in my soul during World Youth Day in Denver 1993. For those of us “Denver kids” as I like to call us, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
My very first experience of Pope John Paul II – Saint John Paul II was Denver, CO 1993 as a teenage chaperone to high school kids. Barely out of high school myself, my parents and our pastor’s niece and I were leading our Boston Archdiocesan parish group on pilgrimage to Denver for World Youth Day with the Pope. These pilgrimages are a lot more popular now and more exposed through social media, but in my college days, it was a budding phenomenon made into a Catholic thing by JP2 whose heart was to evangelize young people who would in turn “go out” and evangelize the culture.
We really had no idea what to expect and surely had no idea it involved miles and miles (and like 20 miles) of walking into Cherry Creek Park, forced fasting, sleeping out on tents packed in like sardines as far as the eye could see. How would we see the Pope when he helicoptered in? We were so far away from the stage but having a blast with the ethnic cultures, singing through the night, making new friends, brokering tee-shirt swaps that could prove our newly forged friendships with people from far away lands, like Texas and Ethiopia all in what looked like the United Colors of Benetton times nearly a million people.
A stranger came and offered us seats “down front” near the press corps and after we assessed the situation and realized even if he was a con artist (the suspicious Boston in us) he’d only get away with our shower curtain tarps, we accepted the invite and meandered to the VIP area. Sweet! Not even sure why we didn’t question this, but who cares as at this point, we now had these primo seats near the media staging and tons of priests and religious sisters. The guy disappeared and we were locked in for the remainder of the WYD event and now EAGERLY awaiting JP in something that felt like the Super Bowl of Catholicism. This was getting real.
The whole experience was ELECTRIC. When the Pope arrived we were FACE to FACE with the rock star Pope saint in the making and whole heartedly caught up in the chanting of “JP2, WE LOVE YOU. JP2 WE LOVE YOU” and “VIVA IL PAPA” .. Long Live the Pope. Over and over and over again. He egged us on and maneuvered his hands calling for the banter and played back and forth. He was a big kid and a former actor so the theatrics and his natural charisma were rocking the house or in this case the very dusty Indian reservation filled with Catholics from all over the world. Everyone in our group experienced the presence of Christ through Pope John Paul II and each received the commission. We were only 20 deep from the future saint.
We were juxtaposed next to the world press and for me it was a bit of a foreshadowing of my future life as a TV journalist. I later covered his Pontificate in the good days and in the darkest days of the Church and later his death and funeral. For the days ahead I was strengthened.
His message to us the Church was serious after the playful banter. It’s a call to us even now:
“Dear young pilgrims, The Spirit has led you to Denver to fill you with new Life: to give you a stronger faith and hope and love. Everything in you – your mind and heart, will and freedom, gifts and talents – everything is being taken up by the Holy Spirit in order to make you “living stones” of the “spiritual house” which is the Church. This Church is inseparable from Jesus; He loves her as the Bridegroom loves the Bride. This Church today, in the United States and in all the other countries from which you come, needs the affection and cooperation of her young people, the hope of her future. In the Church each one has a role to play, and all together we build up the one Body of Christ, the one People of God. As the third millennium approaches, the Church knows that the Good Shepherd continues, as always, to be the sure hope of humanity. Jesus Christ never ceases to be the “sheepgate”. And despite the history of humanity’s sins against life, he never ceases to repeat with the same vigour and love: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10, 10).”
You can read more of his message here.
This was a turning point in my life of faith and an experience with the larger Church (we are one body) and the Pope of my generation whose teaching over decades of his Pontificate formed me and has prompted every step of my journey of faith and mission. On a very personal level, this event changed our family when my Jewish dad experienced such grace and power of God in the Vicar of Christ, that year he was baptized a Catholic and received Holy Communion and Confirmation immediately upon returning from this trip. “I came that you might have life.” (John 10:10). We became a complete Catholic family. Pope of youth. Pope of family life. Pope of converts. Pope pointing to the Universal Call to Holiness. Pope affirming the body and sending us out.
BAM here we are. Flash forward to 2016 and we celebrate his feast day this past weekend. He died in 2005 – and it’s been over a decade since his death. Reflecting on all the sending out and modern missionary work since, it’s part exhausting and part exhilarating to see all that God keeps doing since this moment in time. Just when you think you may have had your last stop, there is a new assignment and new territory. (I never saw LA coming).
Back to that song. If you attended WYD 1993 or watched the events live on TV you remember these lyrics: “We are one body, one body in Christ and we do not stand alone. We are one body, one body in Christ, and he came that we might have life.” That’s the most familiar part. But it goes on like this:
When you eat my body and you drink my blood, I will live in you and you will live in my love. When you eat my body and you drink my blood, I will live in you and you will live in my love.
Can you hear them crying, can you feel their pain? Will you feed my hungry, will you help my lame? See the unborn baby, the forgotten one, they are not forsaken, they are not unloved.
I am the Way, the Truth, the Life, I am the Final Sacrifice, I am the Way, the Truth, the Life; he who believes in me will have eternal life. I am the Way, the Truth, the Life, I am the Final Sacrifice, I am the Way, the Truth, the Life; he who believes in me will have eternal life.
I have come, your Savior, that you might have life, through the tears and sorrow, through the toils and strife. Listen when I call you, for I know your need, come to me, your shepherd, for my flock I feed.
At the name of Jesus ev’ry knee shall bend; Jesus is the Lord and he will come again. At the name of Jesus ev’ry knee shall bend; Jesus is the Lord and he will come again.
On the rock of Peter, see my Church I build. Come receive my spirit, with my gifts be filled. For you are my body, you’re my hands and feet. Speak my word of life to ev’ryone you meet.
This song became our group’s little anthem. I think too for everyone who attended that World Youth Day with the Holy Father, it might be similar. We sang our hearts out and memorized the lyrics. Our pastor invited us back after our trip and we witnessed to the parishioners after all the Masses and shared about the events and even sang this song for everyone. We were like a World Youth Day gang. I remember these lyrics and feel like heaven is asking, affirming and in-filling again for this great commission that doesn’t end.
This past Saturday I attended a special feast day Mass at a Polish Shrine dedicated to Pope John Paul II here in Los Angeles. (If you are in LA, I recommend a visit to Our Lady of the Bright Mount) His first class relic is housed there and I needed to get near his body. His bones. I needed to remind him of my 19-year-old teen-age prayers for my life. My future. Some outstanding stuff that has yet to come around. Catholics honor the saints because the saints like us, have gone before us and the Church has recognized a heroic example of holiness and the fact that they now stand in the great cloud of witnesses – the mystical body of Christ – and intercede for us in our need. We pray “blessed be God in his angels and in his saints.” I mean, what Pope who globe trotted around the world – country to country in front of thousands to bring the love of Christ to every corner of the earth, would not hear us who press in toward him? I brought a really big intention – the most long awaited to him and I know that it’s done. I brought your prayers with me too. So many of you are waiting for results. So many of you are doing work that seems to go on and on and are waiting for a really big breakthrough. Hang tough. It’s coming.
We prayed the Divine Mercy chaplet and suddenly the Polish priest emerged and I asked him if he would let me venerate the relic. (It was a very disorganized feast day!) He could not have been more kind and eager and the 20 or so adults who lingered behind lined up at the altar rail and everyone was able to honor and pray with the saint. I couldn’t stop weeping. It was not sorrow, but such strong emotion of his presence this day. Presence of his Papal authority, his powerful sway before the Father and a renewal for whatever comes next in my life. I could feel his Papal authority with that Polish eternal smile – that joyful confidence that God wants us to have as children going before their Father, confidence that the Father will hear and answer.
There were teenage kids at the shrine for a day retreat and I could see myself in their eager faces and I was instantly transported back to a place and time of my visitation around their age. All I could think about was that they never heard his voice or saw his face. I was overcome with emotion about the impact of this Pope on my life and as I reflected on the song “We are one Body” I thought of the many ways that JP taught about the power of the Body of Christ, the Theology of the Body in imitation of Jesus – the love he had for the living God – Jesus – who took on flesh, a body for our sins, for our salvation. He implored within us an urgency to BE the body – the representatives of Christ to the world – WHEREVER God was calling us – no matter how far – no matter how inconvenient – in season and out of season.
In this instant underneath his relic, praying as if he were here truly alive standing before me as clear as that World Youth Day in Denver, I could feel this power of God through His chosen and favored son, my Polish Papa, empowering and calling again – BE NOT AFRAID. Be not afraid to go where he calls you. Be not afraid of your future, it’s filled with hope. Be not afraid of how you will proclaim His name, for He dwells in you and I go before you. Be not afraid, when they persecute you, eventually every knee shall bend.
“When you eat my body and you drink my blood, I will live in you and you will live in my love” is a powerful lyric. We cannot take Him unless we consume him and when we consume him we take him as living tabernacles to the world. “Can you hear them crying, can you feel their pain? Will you feed my hungry, will you help my lame? See the unborn baby, the forgotten one, they are not forsaken they are not unloved.”
Praying for you+