Sed Contra: Il Papa!

Deal W. Hudson
April 1, 1998

I never thought I would be part of a cheering, waving crowd. After all, I was 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.

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 heavy laden, and I will give you rest. . . . for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11.28)

The joy abounding in that gigantic room—the trumpets, the accordions, the pope-cheers, and giant banners—refutes, in a moment, all the whining one hears in America about “chill winds from Rome.” How it must rankle his critics that a pontiff who believes so strongly in Humanae Vitae and evinces such deep Marian devotion, can elicit such love from across the spectrum of humanity.

The Mexican group in front of us kept breaking into a chant that always brought a smile to the pope’s face. “They’ve got this thing right,” I said to my wife. I thought of all the contemporary jazz-it-up programs in this country intended to ignite the kind of spiritual fire that was sweeping through this very room. Guess what: All the rows faced directly toward the stage—there wasn’t a circular line in the place! The thousands didn’t come to look at each other but to look at one man, a man whose emergent holiness is palpable. But in looking at him we somehow saw one another, and we were united by his Body, in spite of all the differences between us.

Commentators are always pointing out, correctly, the American penchant for individualism. Later on, as our Crisis group shared notes, we were all grateful to have the wave of that great love for the Holy Father, and for Christ, wash over us. Later that day, we descended into the excavations under St. Peter’s altar. A young seminarian from the North American College, a member of my own parish in Northern Virginia, led us through the layers of churches and mausoleums leading down to what experts believe are the bones of St. Peter.

At journey’s end, standing together directly below Bernini’s altar, this young deacon reminded us that this was the same Peter who had denied Christ three times, who had seen him crucified, who had been entrusted the keys to the entire Church. Talk about real presence! When we learned that John Paul II had taken a relic of St. Peter to help him recover from the bullet wound of 1981, our experience of the mysterious unity was now complete. From the first pope to this one, John Paul the Great, spanning over nearly two thousand years, God’s grace to his Body, through the mediation of his earthly Vicar, has been shed without interruption through time and space and across the world.

Yet, the undeniable principle that informs this work of grace is that it begins at the head and passes through the rest of the body. We can only pray that the millions of pilgrims that pass through the Vatican between now and the Jubilee year will reaffirm the fundamental form of Catholic Christianity, nowhere more powerfully seen than in the haggard, luminous pope from Poland.

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