In January of 1991 I landed in Rome, Italy to begin studies at Loyola University’s (Chicago) Rome Center. As a wide-eyed college sophomore I was so excited to be in the country of my ancestors and in the city that serves as the center of my faith tradition. Little did I know that this first landing in Rome would begin a journey for me that would bring me back there time and time again to experience the beauty, richness and tradition of my Church. Having spent another year in Rome during the 93-94 academic year (and several trips since), I consider the Eternal City, the Vatican and the surrounding hills of central Italy a second home. Each time I arrive there I am reminded of the great blessings that I experienced there. Among those experiences were several encounters with Saint John Paul the Great. It’s even a little surreal to type that on my keyboard! Saint…wow! And I had the privilege of being in his presence on many, many occasions.
My most vivid memory was an occasion of profound impact on my life; a private Mass with the Holy Father in his personal chapel within the papal apartments. My journal entry from February 25, 1991 begins with: “Incredible! Unbelievable! Spectacular!” The same journal entry, after reviewing the day’s events, ends with “What a beautiful man”. Having reported to the Bronze Doors of the Apostolic Palace in the pre-dawn hours, we were escorted up to the private offices of the pope and eventually into a small chapel that held no more than 30 people. It was only after sitting down and taking in my environs for a moment that I came to realize the pope was kneeling only 6 feet away from me, in deep prayer at his kneeler. He seemingly did not even notice the movement of his guests that day but remained in meditation for at least another 15 minutes before vesting for Mass. Adorned in Lenten purple and true to his own humility and piety, John Paul presided over a simple celebration of Mass in English for those gathered and each received the Eucharist from him in a deeply personal encounter with this holy man. At the conclusion of Mass all of us were led into an adjoining room where the pope himself greeted us one after another. The piercing blue eyes still remain a vivid memory for me. The thick Polish accent as he spoke: “Ah, Loyola, Loyola. Students from Loyola.” My exact words escape me these 23 years later but those were not nearly as important as the encounter, the moment itself when the pope handed each of us present a rosary. This was his custom tied to his deep love of the Blessed Mother. We buried my mom with that rosary in 2007.
Thanks to my friend now-Archbishop Tim Broglio, I had so many wonderful, behind the scenes, personal encounters with John Paul. I could go on and on with the stories of my encounters with Saint John Paul the Great in 1991 and in 1993-94. The Good Friday encounter, the Ash Wednesday Mass, the several audiences, and the second private audience where we recited the Rosary with him. While many have reflected on the fact that there was never a doubt that this great pope would someday be a saint, it was never a thought that passed through my young mind at the time. I’ll chalk it up to my own spiritual immaturity at the time. But these many years later there is cause in my heart to be joyful and humbled at the experiences I had in my second home. Providentially it was also during those years that, while on a train to Assisi, I met (and got into a theology debate with) a civilian-dressed young man who introduced himself as Charles. It wasn’t until dinner that night in Assisi that Charles revealed to me that he was the bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota! 20 years later “Charles” is my boss…the Most Reverend Charles Chaput, OFMCap, Archbishop of Philadelphia.
So for those that wonder if the Holy Spirit is still alive and well in our lives, take note. There are saints among us! We may never realize it and we may even take it for granted but in the end, God has a purpose and plan for all of us. Our lives are far from scripted for us by Him, but what I do know is that He guides us into His Divine Providence every step of the way, doing all that He can to prepare us for sainthood. I have a long, long way to go! But I thank Him every day for the people (and the saints) that I have met on the journey.
That’s me in the middle just after greeting the Holy Father! Here he is handing a rosary to one of my great friends, Brian Fitzpatrick. Although we look 12, we were really about 20….