That’s where my buddy Pete, a high school campus minister in St. Louis, came in. Two days before the Pope’s arrival, Pete called to say that he had a few extra tickets to the youth rally and wanted to know if my wife and I could come back to help him chaperone his group. My heart skipped a beat! One problem: my wife was taking classes at the time and absolutely could not miss on the day of the youth rally. She encouraged me to go nonetheless. I told Pete that I’d need to call him back.
We had moved to eastern Illinois, knowing no one; and the small town where we lived was incredibly unfriendly, so we hadn’t made any good friends. It didn’t feel right to leave my wife there without any support if something should go wrong.
I had seen the Pope once before, in a private audience (of 4,000 people) when I visited Rome, for the canonization of Rose Philippine Duchesne. I was fifteen at the time. In the eleven years between that audience and Peter's invitation, I had come to understand and love Christ's gift of the papacy in a much deeper way, and John Paull II in particular. I had read Archbishop Sheen's autobiography and could not agree more with Sheen's assessment of the Holy Father. Venerable Fulton J. Sheen died only one year into John Paul's papacy, but before doing so he wrote these prophetic words:
I believe that John Paul II will go down in history as one of the great Pontiffs of all times. As one looks over the history of Christendom, it seems that there is a crisis about every five hundred years. The first cycle of five hundred years was the fall of Rome, when God raised up the great Pontiff Gregory the Great....The second cycle of five hundred years brings us roughly to the years 1000, when there was the Eastern schism, but also the decline of holiness in the Church...Gregory VII, who was a Benedictine, was raised by God to heal the crisis....In the third cycle there was a breakup of Christian unity...The great Dominican Pontiff, Pius V, saved the Church by applying the reforms of the Council of Trent and by establishing missionary activity throughout the world. Now we are in the fourth cycle of five hundred years, with two world wars in twenty-one years, and the universal dread of nuclear incineration. This time God has given us John Paul II, who has drawn the attention of the world to himself as no human being has done in history. (Treasures in Clay, 244-5)Sheen did not live to see John Paul II survive an assassin's bullet, set in motion the fall of Communism, traverse the world spreading the Gospel, articulate and proclaim his life-changing Theology of the Body, and a thousand and one other accomplishments - all by the grace of God. What Sheen did know was this:
Over a century ago, a Polish poet by the name of Slowacki wrote these prophetic lines: "God has made ready the throne for a Slav Pope/ He will sweep out the Churches and make them clean within,/ God shall be revealed, clear as day, in the created world." A polish woman who died in 1972 at the age of ninety-two knew Father Wojtyla as a young priest. Among her effects at death there was found in her prayer book this prophecy of Slowacki under which she had written the lines: "This Pope will be Karol." (Treasures in Clay, 246)I can rarely recount that story without feeling the pressure of tears behind my eyes. (They are even there as I write them this morning.) I believed that God was at work in Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II; and I had come to love him as my own dear brother, as my own father in faith (as Paul was to Timothy - 1 Tim. 1:2).
As I sat in my Illinois living room, thinking about making the trip to see John Paul II in St. Louis, the Lord let me feel the incredible love I bore this man. The reality of the Communion of Saints was impressed very deeply upon me, and I knew that going to St. Louis could not bring me any closer to that man, than the Holy Spirit had in that moment. Seeing John Paul II, even speaking with him face-to-face, could not increase that union. There was no need to go to St. Louis. No, I needed to stay where I was and be present to my wife. That was what I did, and I have never second-guessed the decision.
We here on earth - as well as those in heaven and those experiencing God's purifying love in purgatory - are joined together in Christ's one, great, Mystical Body. "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it...If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Cor. 12:26-7). Each of us is joined to Christ and, because of Him, simultaneously joined to one another.
I share this not to downplay the awesome experience of physically going to see or hear holy people such as John Paul II. My purpose is to draw attention to one of the tremendous realities encapsulated in the upcoming feast of All Saints Day. In that feast we celebrate all of the brothers and sisters Christ's grace has raised up to the glory of heaven. Jesus has brought them with him into the "cloud" of God's glory (Ex. 24:16-18; Num. 9:15-23; Luke 1:35; Luke 9:30-35; Acts 1:9). And so, when we draw near to the Lord Jesus, we simultaneously draw near to His saints (Heb. 12:22-24).
Today is a day of feasting and inspiration!
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2)