At Mass with Saint John Paul the Great

Deal W Hudson

I never thought I would be part of a cheering, waving crowd. After all, I thought myself too old, too sophisticated. Then John Paul II walked out on the stage. It was his Wednesday public audience, and together with my family and six friends I sat only a few rows from the stage of an enormous room that holds up to eight thousand. As he walked slowly toward his chair, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was seeing Christ, and I couldn’t hold back, anything.

The next day I and my family would experience that magnetic, overpowering force in the small papal chapel.

Most people would think that an audience with the pope and thousands of other people wouldn’t be very satisfying. Only the lucky few on the prima fila, the first row, get to shake his hand afterward. But sitting there among Catholic groups from around the world, hearing them sing to the pope in over a dozen languages, offers nothing less than a revelation of the Church universal.

There, addressing itself to every sense of the body, was a living witness to why the Church has one man at its head, one man to represent the one Christ of its Body. I knew I would never again have to explain to my daughter why the pope is called the “Holy Father.”

As I watched John Paul II, I kept noticing the sheer size of his shoulders. Here was a philosopher with the shoulders of a stevedore! How heavy the burden is that he carries for all of us, I thought. His body, the way his head bends forward, almost looks crucified already. But as he prayed I could see how he was able to carry it-Christ carries it for him: “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavily laden, and I will give you rest. . . . for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11.28)

Very late that night the phone rang in the convent where we were staying. A sister came and knocked on the door, with an obviously urgency, and gestured that I was wanted on the phone. A voice with a heavy Italian accent told me that my family had been invited to celebrate Mass with the Holy Father the next morning.  Can I bring my friends? I asked. No, just you and your family I was told.

We came early the next morning to the appointed place where the Swiss Guards stood at the entrance to the long, seemingly endless, stairway leading to the papal apartments. We were the first to arrive and had to bow our heads to enter the chapel. Our host gestured to take the seats in the front row. Being so nervous it was only when I took my seat that I realized the Holy Father was on his knees, bent over, praying only a few feet in front of me. Yes, his shoulders were enormous, the shoulders of man bearing the greatest responsibility in the world.

The power of his prayer, his faith, his dedicated to the Sacrament was palpable.  It felt like a turbine engine sending warm throughout the room.

Afterwards, those who attended were placed in line in the reception room next door — since we had been the first to enter the chapel we became the last in the line to be greeted by Saint John Paul the Great. The entire time he was greeting the others, Holy Father had his eye on my then 11-year old daughter, she was the only child in the line, wearing his Catholic school uniforms and holding a box of gifts for him from her classmates.

He greeted by wife Theresa first, and handed her a rosary — her face shone as bright as I have seen. Then came Hannah, and it seemed as if the room had filled with pure love, seeing the way the Holy Father put his hand upon her head and took her gifts, then kissing her head and saying a short prayer.

He turned to me, definitely not as interesting to him as Hannah, but he clapped when he saw the copy of Crisis Magazine I handed him bearing his picture and the words “John Paul the Great” (December 1997) across the cover.  By his smile it was obvious he didn’t seem to mind the branding.

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