A few years ago, my friend Megan and I headed to Rome to celebrate the feast of John Paul II. At the time, he was newly beatified and was not yet on the calendar for the church in the United States. It was his first feast day, and barring special permission, Mass for his feast could be celebrated in only two places: Rome and Poland. As soon as we learned this, Megan and I made plans to travel to Rome to celebrate. We had been studying in Rome in the spring of 2005, and we were there to witness his last days. We saw him with our own eyes as he came to his window on Easter Wednesday for his last public appearance. We waited in line for hours to pay our respects as his body lay in the basilica. And I stood with the people of Wadowice in St. Peter’s Square at his funeral, after sleeping on the street to ensure I would make it into the piazza that morning.
I’ll never forget kneeling at his tomb early in the morning on October 22, 2011, his first feast day. Early morning is the best time to pray in St. Peter’s, just as the guards open the metal detectors for the first of the pilgrims to enter the vast basilica. At this time, the immensity of the basilica becomes much smaller and intimate, as the Creator of the world enters space and time on the altars throughout the church. Simultaneously, dozens of priests celebrate their private Masses at the center of Christendom. When I lived there, this was my favorite time to visit the basilica, to kneel in intimate communion with Christ. The tourists were still sleeping, the air was still crisp, and my day was beginning in front of its Author.
That morning, the basilica was more crowded than usual, and most of the pilgrims were kneeling at the side altar under which John Paul II is now buried. We were gathered there, simply assuming Mass would be said. Sure enough, shortly before 7:30 a.m., six priests filed past the guards and Mass commenced. It was in Italian, as I suspected it would be, but it was enough to hear in the opening prayer, “Giovanni Paolo secondo… Papa.”
This may sound ridiculous, but it was at that Mass that it began to sink in that John Paul II was Blessed John Paul II. Yes, I had watched his beatification. I pray to him every day. But to celebrate Mass for his feast… to hear prayers written just for his feast… to hear the readings chosen particularly for him… it was overwhelming. We were invoking him as we invoke St. Peter or St. Catherine or St. Joan of Arc or St. Maximilian Kolbe.
I was celebrating the feast of someone whom I had seen. Whose funeral I had attended. And now he’s in heaven.
Perhaps for the first time, the concept of the communion of saints came alive for me. I knew intellectually that the saints weren’t myths or fairy tales or superhumans. But now I was witnessing it: that someone who walked on this earth with me, who celebrated Mass for me, who shook the same hands I had shaken and spoken to the same people I had spoken … was in heaven.
At that Mass, we heard for the first time which readings were chosen for his feast. As we now know, the Gospel chosen is the passage from John when Christ asks Peter, “Do you love me?” When Peter responds – three times – in the affirmative, Christ tells him, “Feed my sheep.” Hearing those words, realizing this Gospel was chosen particularly for John Paul, reflecting on how much he loved Christ, how passionately he fed Christ’s sheep… I wept.
I may have wept more at that Mass than I did at his funeral. Not out of sorrow, but out of joy. God is so good. He continually raises up saints for us, examples of holiness, and friends to intercede for us.
Fifty years from now, John Paul II will be just a picture or a statute to the young people. Just like Pius XII is to me, whose statue is tucked in a niche close to John Paul II’s tomb. They will read his biographical sketch in their missal and know he was a great man, but they won’t know him as we were blessed to know him. While that saddens me, it also is a consolation. John Paul II was an incredible pontiff, but he is one pillar among many in our Church. Fifty years from now, there will be another Holy Father for the sheep. Not another John Paul II, of course, but another shepherd — Christ will never leave his flock unattended. Thanks be to God.