Pope John Paul II said so much, wrote so much, taught so much that was truly memorable. He helped to overthrow communism and to foster peace. He was called a pioneer in inter-faith dialogue. His series of talks which came, cumulatively, to be known as the “theology of the body” helped to sharpen and define our understanding of what he called the “nuptial meaning of the body.” He clarified the Church’s teachings against artificial contraception, capital punishment, divorce, homosexuality and the ordination of women. He published a catechism of the Catholic Church, summarizing all the beliefs and moral tenet of the Church.
As the years of his papacy passed, he grew increasingly frail—troubled by Parkinson’s disease. Nearing death, he was unable to participate in the traditional Way of the Cross at the Colosseum on Good Friday. He appeared via video link—assuring the faithful, with the help of a cardinal, that he was “spiritually with you.”
The pope said, “Even I offer up my sufferings, so that God’s plan is fulfilled and so that his word spreads among the people. I am also close to those who, at this moment, are tried by sufferings. I pray for each one of them.”
And then, seven years ago today—at 9:37 p.m. on April 2, 2005—he went home to the Father.
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I first saw our Holy Father (for real, that is, instead of on TV) on October 18, 2000. On our first trip to Europe, we attended the Wednesday General Audience for the first time. He spoke briefly, talking about the Eucharist as the banquet of communion with God. He quoted Veritatis Splendor: “By sharing in the sacrifice of the Cross, the Christian partakes of Christ’s self-giving love and is equipped and committed to live this same charity in all his thoughts and deeds. In the moral life the Christian’s royal service is also made evident and effective.”
He blessed the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square, and then rode around the Square in the Popemobile. We snapped this pic:
Shortly after that, I began working for Legatus and began to travel to Rome for an audience each fall. Our group of 70 or 100 pilgrims would gather beside the Holy Father on the dais in St. Peter’s Square for a group portrait. I, as a staff member, would hang back, standing at the edge of the crowd but near enough to see and hear him.
But then, in 2003, an intestinal flu forced the pope to miss the Wednesday Audience. We were welcomed instead by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, then the Vatican Secretary of State, in the Paul VI Hall.
Although we were grateful for Cardinal Sodano’s warm welcome, our group was sorry to have missed seeing the Holy Father; and so on Saturday, by which time he had recovered from his illness, we inquired whether it might yet be possible to greet him. Our request was accepted, and we happily went to the Bronze Door, then into the Apostolic Palace.
Within minutes we were walking through stuccoed halls, through a double line of boldly costumed Swiss Guards, swords held aloft. We passed historic art, the Throne of Constantine, the Raphael tapestries, into the papal library. The room had just been remodeled to look as it does today, and we could smell the still-wet paint. And there he sat.
John Paul was aging; his face was partially immobilized by his disease. Nonetheless, his warmth was evident. One by one, single file, we walked to the front and were introduced by name. My boss, Tom Monaghan, made the introduction: “Your Holiness, this is Kathy Schiffer.” The pope’s eyes met mine, and I bent to kiss his ring and to receive his blessing.
It was over in a moment—and it will never be over. I’ll carry that moment in my heart forever.