Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Touching Greatness


Everyone of us, if we are lucky, will have at least one moment in our lives when we have, at least for a brief moment, been truly part of history. If we are even luckier, we will have had the opportunity to be close, to touch, or communicate in some way, with a person of greatness. Three years after the death of one of the greatest Popes in the history of the Church, two different sets of memories come flooding back. The first is of a young man of eighteen, on a small vocation pilgrimage to Rome. Through the good offices of the former Secretary of the Pope, Father, now Bishop, John Magee - our little group received the summons to be at the Papal apartment early one morning, to attend Holy Mass celebrated by the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II. To receive the Body of Christ from the Vicar of Christ; not a unique experience - many over the years were lucky enough to have had that same experience - but what an unforgetable experience! Pope Benedict, in his homily today said it was "enough to have seen him in prayer." Twenty-seven years later that is my abiding memory: "to have seen him in prayer!" Absorbed in prayer; caught up in prayer - completely unaware of our presence behind him in his little Chapel. He was, said Pope Benedict, a mystic; of that there is no doubt. Jump forward to April 2005: that same young man, now a priest (thanks be to God!) - is in Rome with two other priest friends, celebrating his 10th anniversary as a priest. John Paul is very sick - the morning we arrive in Rome, we receive what would be his last blessing from the window in St. Peter's - his last wordless blessing. Strange miracles begin to happen - things fall into place. TV crews arrive from all over the world to cover the story - is the Pope dying? The ten year old priest is interviewed by the BBC - twice! Wandering back from supper on the Saturday evening, we hear the bells tolling in St. Peter's. "It's just the hour," my priestly brother says - but the bells keep tolling. "Why are they tolling," I ask an Italian tv crew - "the Pope is dead!" We enter the square and join the thousands of people - mainly young, who are praying, crying - and some singing. The light is still on in the Holy Father's apartment - the one I was in 27 years before. Over the following days, millions joined us - to pray and to become pilgrims. I still remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing the footsteps of people walking by in the street all night long - just five minutes from the Vatican. The night before we were due to leave, we get in to venerate his body at Midnight - because we are clergy, we are lucky enough to be allowed to pray beside his mortal remains. Has it really been three years since his death? As George Weigel once wrote, great times of crisis in the Church produce great saints: we have the great saint for the new Millennium - John Paul the Great!