By S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - Catholics around the world are
rejoicing as preparations are being made for the beatification
of Pope John Paul II on Sunday, May 1.
It is no coincidence that the late
Holy Father’s beatification will take place on the Feast of
Divine Mercy. Not only did he personally establish this
observance for the universal Church in 2000, he died on the eve
of Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005.
As he prepared to beatify his
predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI said, "Those who knew him, those
who esteemed and loved him, cannot but rejoice with the Church
for this event."
In the Diocese of Lincoln, a number of
priests, religious and laypersons had the privilege of
experiencing personal encounters with Pope John Paul II while he
still lived. Each of them has profound memories of this
"An enormous inspiration in my
When Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz was a
priest working at the Congregation for Catholic Education at the
Vatican, Pope John Paul II – then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of
Krakow – was a member of the Congregation, so their paths
"We hit it off quite nicely," the
bishop recalled. "He was an extraordinarily interesting and
complex personality…exceptionally contemplative and meditative
in the way he dealt with issues. "
The bishop smiled, "He also frequently
made us laugh."
He recalled seeing Pope John Paul II
for the first time after the Holy Father had fallen, dislocating
a shoulder and breaking his hip. As he hobbled into the room
with a cane, the pontiff jested, "Eppur si muove."
Bishop Bruskewitz chuckled as he
translated, " ‘Whatever you say…it moves,’ which is what Galileo
was alleged to have said after his trial."
After Pope John II appointed him
Bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Bishop Bruskewitz had several
more encounters with him, along with his mother and sister. The
Holy Father always made them feel at ease.
"I remember his affection and the
outpouring of concern for me personally," the bishop said. He
told of how the Holy Father and his mother shared a conversation
in Czech, which Pope John II recalled during a subsequent
meeting as he handed the bishop a special rosary to take back to
For the Church and for the secular
world, Bishop Bruskewitz said that Pope John Paul II had an
"His great work, his encyclicals, his
apostolic letters… some of his writings and teachings were
Bishop Bruskewitz also marveled at how
much time Pope John Paul II devoted himself to prayer, fasting
and acts of penance.
"It was kind of astonishing for me,"
he said. "After his death, we found out he led even a more
austere life than we knew."
He concluded, "I can only tell you
that Pope John Paul II has been and continues to be an enormous
inspiration in my life."
"His zeal was phenomenal."
Tony Ojeda of Saint Mary Parish in
Denton saw Pope John Paul II in person for the first time at
World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. Six years later, Mr. Ojeda
travelled to see him again, when the Holy Father made a pastoral
visit in Saint Louis, Mo.
"Both times were life-changing," Mr.
He was inspired by the pope’s obvious
desire to build passion for the faith among all Catholics… and
particularly young Catholics.
"The thing that always struck me was
his own youthfulness," Mr. Ojeda said, citing Pope John Paul
II’s remarkable energy, despite his busy travel schedule and his
age (73 and 79 years respectively).
"His zeal for the faith and passing on
that zeal to young people was phenomenal," Mr. Ojeda said.
"You could sense the presence of
Sister Maria Meza, M.S., had the
privilege of studying in Rome between 2001-2003. While there,
she was frequently able to catch glimpses of Pope John Paul II.
Once, she even ran alongside his limo, and he waved back at her.
While in Rome, Sister Maria celebrated
the 25th jubilee of her final vows, which included a
personal encounter with the Holy Father at one of his weekly
audiences. It was 2002, and the pontiff had become quite ill.
She was allowed to go up, kiss his hand and receive a blessing.
"That was a pretty big highlight for
me," she said. "When he looked at you, you felt like he saw your
soul… It kind of made time stop for me."
Despite his pain, she witnessed his
very personal love for each person he encountered.
"It almost energized him," she said.
"He was very Christ-like, very gentle and patient…. Humility
just radiated out of him."
Sister Maria recalled that the pope
had suffered tremendously during Lent one year. He had lost his
voice, which prevented him from attending these weekly
audiences. At last, the Wednesday after Easter, he reappeared,
leading a group of children in singing the hymn, Regina Caeli:
"O Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia…"
"He just bellowed it out. You could
hear it all along that long street leading up to Saint Peter’s,"
Sister Maria said. "People cried..."
She added, "He truly lived his
priestly vocation to the hilt… You could honestly sense the
presence of Christ in his presence."
"He was tireless."
When Kent and Jackie Knobbe of Rulo
were engaged in 2003, they shared their plans of going to Italy
for their honeymoon with the priest who was preparing them to
receive the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, Father Joel Panzer.
"He told us we should go and have our
marriage blessed by the pope," Mrs. Knobbe replied.
Father Panzer began making
arrangements through Msgr. James Reinert, who was then at the
Vatican. When Father Panzer left for another assignment, Father
Thomas Dunavan took over. Msgr. Robert Roh also pitched in,
making sure the couple was set up for this once-in-a-lifetime
"Marriage and family were such big
issues for him," Mrs. Knobbe said of the late Holy Father.
On the morning of the blessing, which
was to take place at the papal summer home in Lazio, the
newlyweds rose early and dressed in their wedding clothes. A
taxi took them most of the journey into the mountains. They,
along with a host of other pilgrims, walked the rest of the way.
Once they arrived, the Knobbes and 21
other newlywed couples were ushered into a private waiting area
in the pope’s house. They looked out the open windows to see
hundreds of other people gathered for the audience.
At last, Pope John Paul II made his
"He was very sick man, but his mind
was so active," Mrs. Knobbe recalled. "He spoke in every
language. He met everyone – he was tireless!"
When it was their turn, the Knobbes
knelt in front of the Holy Father to kiss his ring and receive
his blessing, nervously greeting him in the little Italian they
had learned specially for the occasion. They also brought
rosaries for him to touch.
The impact of their meeting Pope John
Paul II continued to grow. They enjoy sharing photos of the
event to friends and family, and they later learned that if the
Holy Father is canonized, the rosaries they took to Italy – and
even their own bodies – will become third-class relics.
"It was pretty amazing," Mrs. Knobbe
said. "It just felt unreal.
"You felt like you were there with
In 2000, Msgrs. James Dawson, Raymond
Hain and Robert Tucker, along with Father Lawrence Stoley,
travelled to Rome for 10 days, where they had an unforgettable
experience: concelebrating Mass with Pope John Paul II in his
The four priests from the Lincoln
Diocese were joined by a few others from other dioceses. Some
German pilgrims were also in attendance with their bishop.
"When we came into the chapel, and the
man was in prayer, like he always seemed to be in prayer," Msgr.
Hain said. "You sensed a kind of deep religious union that he
seemed to have with God."
The setting was "very intimate, very
close, very unusual," Msgr. Hain remembered. (The Holy Father’s
private chapel only holds about 35 people.)
"I must say, I really didn’t feel
uneasy about being able to concelebrate the Mass with him in
that small situation, because he didn’t make you feel as though
he was the pope towering over you…You kind of felt like you were
there with your father."
After Mass, the priests were invited
to stay for a few minutes for a short visit with the Holy
"He wasn’t well then anymore," Msgr.
Hain said. "He didn’t speak much, but there was a personal
encounter that you had with him. He gave us each a rosary and
said some little blessings for us and our families."
He continued, "I’d do it again in a
heartbeat. It was the highlight of our trip."
"He had the message of the Gospel."
Msgr. James Reinert, now pastor of
Saint Joseph Parish in York, worked for years as the Vatican’s
permanent observer to the United Nations and then at the Vatican
itself, so he enjoyed numerous encounters with Pope John Paul
He witnessed the Holy Father’s change
from a vibrant newly made pontiff in his mid-50s to the frail
old man in his final years. What remained consistent, Msgr.
Reinert said, was Pope John Paul II’s deep concern for his
"He was someone who cared greatly
about what he was doing and the people he was meeting," Msgr.
Reinert remembered. "In fact, after he spoke at the United
Nations in October 1995, we had lunch later in the day, and he
said, ‘I hope I told them what they needed to hear.’"
Msgr. Reinert continued, "I think that
was true throughout his pontificate. He had the message of the
Gospel, and he wanted to share it."
Following Pope John Paul II’s
beatification on Sunday, one more miracle must be attributed to
him and authenticated before he will be canonized.
Already, many Catholics are calling
him, "Pope John Paul the Great."
"That’s a very beautiful phrase,"
Bishop Bruskewitz said, noting that such titles can become
commonly used by laypeople, priests and religious before they
gain any sort of "officiality."
"I would certainly be happy to be one
of them," he smiled.
The beatification ceremony will be broadcast on ETWN
beginning at 1:30 a.m. central time on Sunday, May 1, and on
many other major networks at various other times. Check local
listings for details.