If there were ever any doubt, Pope John Paul II’s funeral was evidence of how extraordinarily important a figure he was within the Church and within the world.
People will be writing about his heroic life and historic pontificate long after the rest of us have been forgotten.
God gave me the extraordinary grace of meeting him about ten times. During the past week, I’ve taken out the photographs of those encounters and let each photo speak its thousand or more words. In each of those occasions, his paternal warmth and holiness radiated.
The first time I met him was with my identical twin brother, Scot. Together we attended the morning Mass he celebrated in the private chapel of his papal apartment...After Mass, he came out to a large sala to greet all of those in attendance. He slowly worked himself down the line, greeting the pilgrims in their native languages. He finally came to Scot and me. He noticed that we were twins, and did what most people do when they meet twins together: he quickly turned back and forth between our two faces to discern any disparities. He enthusiastically peppered us with short questions and handed us each a set of blessed rosary beads.
As he clasped my hand to give me the rosary, I asked him to pray for a woman back home who was very ill. His response was something that I have never forgotten. He looked me straight in the eye, paused and said, “Let us pray together right now.” He put his head down, closed his eyes, and prayed for several seconds, as I, stunned, tried to do the same.
I had asked hundreds of people in the past to pray for me or for particular intentions, but no one had acted on it so immediately. It would have been easy for the Holy Father to promise me that he would remember it later and include it in a general prayer for all such intentions. But he didn’t even let seconds pass. That request from a son in the faith was enough to get him to stop everything else he was doing. He revealed his true priorities and the deep love for Christ’s flock that showed itself in deeds.
I also recall with great affection the time I had the joy to introduce my parents to him at the end of a private audience. As we knelt before him, seated on a chair, he greeted my parents with a warm, broad smile. I asked if he would give my parents his apostolic blessing on the occasion of their 30th anniversary. He energetically said “volontieri!,” Italian for “willingly!” My mother, predictably, already had two rivers running down her face. But as my dad-in-the-faith blessed my dad-in-the-flesh, my strong father was crying too. Then John Paul turned toward me and, with a twinkle in his eye, said, “A now a blessing for the other father in the family,” and blessed me as well. Ten homilies on the spiritual paternity of the priesthood could not have made me more conscious of being a “father!”
The last time I met him was on September 29, 2004. The group of pilgrims I was helping to lead was selected to have a photograph taken with the Holy Father after his weekly general audience. As we huddled around him, I knelt slightly in front of his chair. As the photographers were snapping away, suddenly I felt someone’s hand on my head from behind, gently pushing down. As I turned around, I saw it was the Holy Father. He was staring at me intensely and I was startled as to what to make of the gesture. It was certainly a sign of paternal affection for a spiritual son and a younger brother in the priesthood. But I couldn’t help but take it, too, as an exhortation in body language: “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on my hands” (2 Tim 1:6).
The world has buried its greatest moral voice. The Church has interred an extraordinary vicar of Christ. But, most of all, we have entombed a true and holy father — as we entrust him back to the God who blessed us with him and through him.