PILGRIMAGE OF GRACE, SAINT OF LOVE AND LIFE
So many of us recall Saint John Paul II with so much fondness and love. As I prayed the novena leading to his feast day today, I wasn’t sure if I’d write and if I did, what would I share? I covered him for TV news in America and at the Vatican during my entire career and was at St. Peter’s Square field producing my station’s news coverage when he crossed the threshold from this life to the next. But as I contemplate his memory and meaning in my life, I feel like I need to go to the beginning of where it started. I feel like we all need to go back to the beginning and consider the roots of our faith and the meaning of why we are here on this earth and to step back and look inward to ask: What will we do now to serve Christ and make His love known on the earth? And if there is an omission, if we have failed – to know it’s not too late to decide definitively for love.
Get a coffee, get comfortable and invite our Polish Papa to be present. I know he’s already here.
By the time I was nineteen years old, I had been a regular with my family in prayer in front of local abortion clinics and had ministered to unwed mothers in the inner city in Boston. Most of my small actions were very little in the grand scheme of things. Praying quietly outside of clinics, buying diapers for babies-to-be, outfitting newborns with beautiful baby clothes, buying an unwed mom soaps and shampoos, or just being present at a Christening Mass as a sign of love to a mother in fear, anxiety and oftentimes abandonment from family – these seemed like too small acts and little spiritual band aids to fill such void of need with fleeting expressions of love and material things. Actions but few words.
My own mother’s unplanned teen pregnancy imbued within the soul of our family the dignity and value of life despite how untimely or scary the rearing of a new baby is when you are not ready or just very young. My mother talked to me colorfully and often about the sign of the Church and what people did for her to show her love, beauty and dignity during her pregnancy. The people who clothed her pregnant young body, those who gave her sundries of comfort, and the nuns who called her toward daily Mass as she prepared to give birth are vivid in my own imagination. The respect for the unborn was fostered in our home through her experience and preached about in our suburban parish outside of Boston. Not in a preachy way or pontificating way, but through the lens of compassion and understanding.
Often as teenagers we marched for life in bold witness in the public square in the face of the rising choice opposition and growing sexualized culture. Our priests wanted us to be equipped to proclaim life. We were raised in our house and at church to know that sex stayed in marriage and if you had sex, you had to be prepared to raise the child you may bring forth. Combined with the clear and consistent teaching off the altar, my mom’s story was the best birth control a teen could ever have. Even if everyone is doing it, you wait.
The summer leading to my senior year in college was more historic than I could ever imagine and, over time, I realize more and more that when Pope John Paul II visited Denver, CO in August of 1993 for World Youth Day, it was a prophetic commission for our entire generation. The seeds of truth planted within our souls would fall on good soil or rocky ground depending on the measure of Grace given to us.
When we were called forward for this experience, my dad was not yet Catholic but was a good moral man who wanted the very best for our family. Our priest, Monsignor Francis Strahan, was the catalyst leading us to this monumental and historic point of grace that would mark our life of faith for years and years to come.
My mom and I were invited by our pastor along with his niece Heidi to chaperone teens at this unprecedented event, one that the American Church had not yet experienced. Heidi and I were just years ahead of the minors but felt like Catholic big shots. There were weeks and weeks of preparation and meetings which grew the anticipation within us. At one point, Monsignor knew that a man should probably be part of our chaperone unit and he asked my mom if my dad would go. “You can ask him” was the response I recall. Would he do it? My dad wasn’t Catholic, but Father appealed to my dad’s desire to protect and provide. He readily agreed to attend and felt like it was an important mission.
I didn’t know a lot about spiritual warfare at nineteen. Sure, we prayed the Saint Michael prayer at the end of the Rosary and in key moments, but I’d say we were all still in that pink cloud level of faith where everything is easy. Until Denver.
I remember the thousands of people pilgriming into this remote dusty area that I’m sure was 20 miles in by foot. I felt like a soldier going into battle. A priest who was miles ahead shouted down “How are you doing down there Alexis?”
To be honest, no one ever talked about how far “in” we would have to walk or if they did, I didn’t remember that. If they actually told us how hard it would be head of time, would we still commit to this? I do remember studying what “pilgrimage” was and there was great emphasis on that as what our mission would be – to pilgrimage to the Holy Father. Well, hurry up because our feet, our 90’s hair, and these clothes needed to last in what felt like a western torture journey worse than the pioneers who at least had covered wagons! (We were city kids!)
Before we shoved off on foot, Dan Rea, the legendary TV news anchor for CBS Boston and now host of Nightside on iHeart Radio was embedded in the sea of people and tracking the Boston contingent’s departure from the Denver hotel area. He focused in our our little parish and interviewed me for the story, “What is a pilgrimage?” I would school him. “You offer everything.”
I explained as best I could in 19-year-old speak for the viewers back home that a pilgrimage is journey that you make to a holy place – a sacrifice. It’s not a vacation! I explained that in a pilgrimage you offer yourself, your time, your heart and intentions in search of truth. A pilgrimage trains you for the pilgrimage of life, as we journey back to God and our home in Heaven.
As an aspiring journalist, this was the start of many signal graces that pointed to my future career. But beyond the little foreshadowing of my career, God was pointing to being a herald of truth and the Gospel – a Gospel that He wanted to make experiential. God was also double clicking on “pilgrimage” as life-long and emphasizing the concept of sacrifice.
So the dusty, dirty, hot, high altitude trek into the sardine packed Denver Indian reservation was training us in prayer, in physical suffering, in long suffering ahead of our anticipated meeting with the Holy Father. In true teen drama, albeit a chaperone, I was convinced we’d be dead by the time the Pope arrived!
Miracle number one was the fact that we made it to our dirt floor of a camp for our overnight event – we couldn’t see faces but could see the stage and the atmosphere was electric with the joy of the international representation of the Universal Church – country after country and makeshift break-out worship with guitars and songs that praised through the Denver night sky waiting for our Papa.
A strange man approached our little group holding wooden crosses and offering to take us to the front of the venue to special seats. The intense Boston suspicion rose within us and we scrutinized this man-angel considering him a potential thief of our shower curtain tarps and make-shift camp in the dirt. We gave him several once overs and whispered in consultation to each other before we finally determined that we’d risk it and follow him to the proposed new seating.
Pilgrimage = VIP because to our amazement we ended up approximately 30 deep from the main stage where the Pope would be face-to-face with us. The first sign of our VIP status was the sea of white plastic *chairs* for the duration. We were off the dirt floor and high level! Why were we called forward? Why us? What was he going to say?
As long as I live, I will never forget the moment the Holy Father arrived and the experience of seeing him so close, hearing him and then his words striking my heart like a sword. To see my dad in the mosh pit of people pushing underneath the stage and each and every one of us with an experience we would not soon forget. The Vicar of Christ on earth had come. Why was this event so important and what did Saint John Paul II say to us, the young Church at Cherry Creek Park?
Pope John Paul II never talked down. He was meeting the young Church, but raised us up to higher things of heaven and the Gospel. If he cajoled he played and communicated in a loving back and forth that exhilarated the multitudes. We would chant “Pappppa” and “John Paul II, we love you.” and he would respond “The Pope loves you too.”
But here it comes.
The Pope called this newish World Youth Day a “celebration of life” under the scripture John 10:10 which says, “I came that they have life and have it abundantly.” He went on to address the pilgrims by saying, “You, young pilgrims, have also shown that you understand that Christ’s gift of Life is not for you alone. You have become more conscious of your vocation and mission in the Church and in the world.”
The Holy Father talked to us with such love and respect saying he had confidence in us – that we “grasped the scale of the challenge that lies before you, and you will have the wisdom and courage to meet that challenge.”
He then said, “so much depends on you.”
As I type these words from August 15, 1993, I want you to hear these words as if you are receiving them now – again or even for the first time: SO MUCH DEPENDS ON YOU.
The Holy Father talked about how the world rejects the light of life preferring the “fruitless works of darkness” (Eph 5,11) .. “their harvest is injustice, discrimination, exploitation, deceit, violence.” And that “In our Century, as no other time in history, the “culture of death” has assumed a social and institutional form of legality to justify the most horrible crimes against humanity: genocide, final solutions, ethnic cleansings and the massive taking of lives of human beings even before they are born, or before they reach the natural point of death.”
As I write this little unknown blog, we are just days out from the most critical Election on our Nation’s history. Life and death hang in the balance. I want you to hear what the Holy Father said to us in the Rocky Mountain experience of our teen-aged World Youth Day 27 years ago:
“When the founding fathers of this great nation enshrined certain inalienable rights in the Constitution – and something similar exists in many countries and in many International Declarations – they did so because they recognized the existence of a “law” – a series of rights and duties – engraved by the Creator on each person’s heart and conscience. In much of contemporary thinking, any reference to a “law” guaranteed by the Creator is absent. There remains only each individual’s choice of this or that objective as convenient or useful in a given set of circumstances. No longer is anything considered intrinsically ‘good” and “universally binding” … vast sectors of society are confused about what is right and wrong, and are at the mercy of those with the power to “create” opinion and impose it on others.”
Pope John Paul II didn’t shrink back from this hot topic, but made it the point of his coming to us. He commissioned us and branded on our hearts the unforgettable call which we all have as Baptized Catholics who bear the qualities of priest, prophet and king. We are sent as missionaries to proclaim the Gospel of Life:
“Young pilgrims, Christ needs you to enlighten the world and to show it the path of life (Ps 16,11) The challenge is to make the Church’s yes to life concrete and effective. The struggle will be long, and it needs each one of you. Place your intelligence, your talents, your enthusiasm, your compassion, and your fortitude at the service of life!”
The Holy Father was prophetic when he declared that the struggle would be long. It’s 2020 and it seems as though the battle is more fierce than ever. Enlightenment is palled by spiritual blindness and a cultural “gimme” over what heaven teaches about the contradiction of sacrifice and setting aside our own desires and time to make room for another (self-offering) and the vulnerable. When women and men model the type of Christianity that John Paul II speaks of it’s mocked by the culture and hated more than ever.
Yet, our Papa encourages and commissions:
“Do not be afraid to go out in the streets and into public places like the first Apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel (Rom 1,16). It is the time to preach it from the rooftops (Matt 10,27). Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern ‘metropolis.’ It is you who must ‘go out into the byroads (Matt 22,9) and invite everyone you meet to the banquet which God has prepared for his people. The Gospel must not be kept hidden because of fear or indifference. It was never meant to be hidden away in private. It has to be put on a stand so that people may see its light and give praise to our heavenly Father.”
To be a person that bears Christ when the world seems to be dim of the light of God and the light of Truth as the cultural choices bombard at every direction is to be one with Christ. We see an adaption to cultural preferences of the flesh over remaining hinged to Truth. But our Sainted John Paul II declared, “Jesus went in search of the men and women of his time. He engaged them in open and truthful dialogue, whatever their condition. As the Good Samaritan of the human family, he came close to people to heal them of their sins and the wounds which life inflicts and to bring them back to the Father’s house.”
We were holding our wooden crosses handed to us by the man-angel listening intently as the battle cry came forth from our rock star Papa, “May you, the Catholic young people of the world, not fail him. In your hands carry the Cross of Christ. On your lips, the words of Life. In your hearts, the saving grace of the Lord.”
It was such a literal and spiritual mountaintop experience and a firebomb of information that dropped into our young souls. The flames of love have only burned wilder and more fierce over time and those flames have taken us to other pilgrim locations to bear Light to a new people. The path has not been easy. But the mission for life remains urgent.
We didn’t find out until after the entire event was over and we were headed for the Boston bus line well outside of the reservation (we had to walk out as far as we walked in) that the Archdiocese of Boston pulled out all the parishes (and the buses!) because there were deaths due to dehydration. The Archdiocese didn’t want to risk it. Word never got to our parish (and one other). While the “pilgrims’ from our entire Archdiocese had to watch the event from the hotel, we were at the base of the Papal stage hearing, receiving and receiving that look of love from the Polish saint who was a Pope of encounter.
We hitched a ride with a guy driving a red pick up truck who drove us through the Rocky Mountains, a rainbow painted the sky above as a visual seal on our experience and upon return to the hotel, the hierarchy told us to go up the side staircase so as to not let anyone know what we experienced. It felt Biblical. How many times did Jesus work a miracle and then say “See that you tell no one.” (Matt 8:4) But what about what we saw? What about what we heard? Didn’t they want to know?
There are manifold reasons why this pilgrimage and up close encounter with one of the greatest saints of our generation meant so much to my family. When the Pope came to Boston when I was four years old, my mom wanted to take us to Boston Common but it was pouring rain. My dad wouldn’t let us go for safety. God made up that missed moment with something greater, more personal and profound. My dad also rushed home to become Catholic. His experience of the glory of God produced a true adult “fiat” in response to the Pope’s message.
So many of us took every word from our saint ever so seriously. In our life, in our work and our interactions. At times it can seem harder and harder to penetrate this world with the Gospel of Life and an understanding of the sacrifice of love that bears life and takes care of life. I’m reminded today that in the offering of our entire lives for this call to bear the Gospel of Life, the Holy Spirit accompanies us and provides VIP access even when the journey is rife with long-suffering, sweat, toil and pain in a throw away culture. I’m reminded that even if many abandon the commission on the pilgrimage journey and don’t travel with you or ever hear, He provides a way for Truth to be proclaimed.
Because of Baptism, the call on our life remains and we are being asked even now for a definitive response to Jesus. I can hear Saint John Paul II urging us again today, in these very difficult times, “..do not fail him. In your hands carry the Cross of Christ. On your lips, the words of Life. In your hearts, the saving grace of the Lord.”
May Saint John Paul II, the saint of love, the saint of life, intercede for us all and for the Church. May you have the grace to say “yes” to what Christ is asking of you now.
Praying for you+