I am very fortunate to have met various people who have been recognized for their sanctity by the Church. In particular, the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II has been crucial in my life.
Back in 1979, I was living in New York teaching at a high school. The newly elected pope came for a pastoral visit to New York. I accompanied my students to meet the Pope at Madison Square Garden where there were gathered many youth. It was the first time seeing that young, courageous and charismatic pope from up close. The effect which this encounter had on me and on my students, was to offer ourselves, that is, the greatness of our hearts, in some way. A profound desire to follow Christ and to offer my life for His people had become infused in me.
I have always perceived a correspondence with what John Paul II said and wrote. Reading his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis, I wished that the openness of the heart and the gift of the vocation to the priesthood could bud in me. As I continued to read and study his writings, my heart was led to desire much more than what I initially had in mind. I wanted to find a place where this desire could really be fulfilled. And God, in his infinite mercy, prepared my heart and mind for the encounter with the Movement of Father Giussani in 1984. I felt a great correspondence between the teachings of the Pope and the thoughts of Father Giussani. I had finally found the right place where I could live what I have always desired: I entered the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo.
After the first year in the seminary, Father Massimo told me about the possibility to serve at a mass celebrated by His Holiness John Paul II and to receive communion from him. It was a great gift. Finally I could meet the Pope face to face, that great man who had totally changed my life. It was a very beautiful and moving celebration – my heart beat rapidly, many thoughts flashed through in my head. I felt as if I was in front of something, or of someone who was infinitely greater than me.
We entered a visitor’s room after the mass to spend a moment with the Pope. He went on his knees and began to pray. His prayer was not only a moment of silence but a conversation with God, filled with may sighs. His prayer touched me profoundly. I could imagine myself enter in a sacred zone where the Presence of God could be sensed from that man. After the prayer, he got onto his feet and came to greet us, looking at each of us in the face. I was the only one with blond hair and blue eyes. He approached me and asked me, «You are not an Italian, am I right?». «You are right, Your Holiness. I am Irish» I responded. «So what are you doing here?». «I am with the Fraternity of St. Charles.» «All the best» he told me, «and I will keep you in my prayers.» After this encounter, I noticed that he prays for all those that he meets.
The certainty that I was accompanied by the Pope’s prayer gave me the strength to keep on going. The days in the seminary were not without hardship. There was much to learn and many areas in which I had to change. At times I could feel the distance from my family. In the moments of difficulty, I thought of Pope John Paul II who had lost his family while he was still young. Reminding myself of him helped me to face all the little sacrifices that were asked of me.
The years in the seminary flew by quickly and I became a priest. In 1998 I have already been serving as a pastor at Holy Rosary Parish at Magliana for a year. I received an invitation to have lunch at the Vatican, to organize the papal pastoral visit to our small parish. It was an emotional moment, mixed with a hint of my “littleness”. I began to ask myself, «Who am I to receive this great honor?» When I arrived there with my brother priests Father Pippino and Father Claudio, the Holy Father was about to enter into the room. The door was opened and entered the pope. He had a walking cane with him since he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He approached me and said, «Hello, Father Gerard, welcome» all in English. I was moved by his gentleness. He took my hand and led me to the dining room. I could never forget his sense of humor, the great joy to live. During the meal, he told me, «You know Father, you remind me of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton…» We laughed together. I felt all of his attention for me. He encouraged me to sit in front of him and we had a profound conversation. He asked me many question about my family, the parish, work. At a certain point, he asked me about my vocation. I recounted about my uncle who was a bishop in Korea, Bishop Thomas Quinlan, who had suffered at the concentration camp. When I was boy, he asked me what I wanted to when I grow up. I answered by saying that I want to become a priest like him. And Thomas replied, «Everything depends on God’s will, but you need to do only this: pray three Hail Mary every evening to the Madonna. Ask her to help you find the right path for your vocation.» «Are you keeping up with the three Hail Marys?» «No, your Holiness, because I am already a priest.» «Yes, you are already a priest» said Wojtyla, «but you are not a bishop yet!» And he began to laugh as usual. During that encounter, we shared everything together. We talked about everything. He had his blue eyes fixed on me, and I could feel the love and the protection of God through his loving gaze. I was filled with new energy and I began to ask myself again, «Who am I to be here at this moment?» At the end of the meal, he greeted me with the following words: «Dear Gerry, you are not Father Brown, but you are certainly Chesterton!» «Your Holiness, thank you. It is an honor to hear such a compliment!»
A few days passed by and on November 8th, the Pope came to our parish. By this time, the Parkinson disease had gotten worse. In spite of the difficulty to stay on his feet, he was able to climb the stairs, spend the whole day with us, meeting every parishioner. It struck me how much he remembered of our previous encounter at the Vatican. He greeted my parents, remembering that my mother was already in heaven, reciting prayers for her, and thanking my father for having offered his son to God. My father told me after the pope’s pastoral visit, «You see, son, your yes to the Lord allowed your poor Irish father to come to Rome to meet the pope of the whole Church. You see how important it is to always say yes to what God asks of us!»
I was fortunate to have various opportunities to meet Saint John Paul II, among which the day after Ash Wednesday stands out. An event was organized for the pope to meet all the pastors in the diocese and upon seeing me, he greeted, «Ah, our Irish man! How are you doing?» I had to respond to the pope that I had a malign tumor in thyroid and that I had to get an operation done. He made the sign of the cross on my forehead and he gently stroked my cheeks. I felt protected. I went on with the operation with serenity, offering everything for the love of God. I learnt exactly this from the Holy Father John Paul II. He used to say that suffering is not man’s weakness but a sign of His strength; everything is to be offered to God. Totus tuus: to offer everything with faith and to accept everything with patience.
Now I also have the Parkinson’s disease, I am beginning to understand what I saw in those days spent with the pope: how difficult it is at times to do simple things, how little things can become a problem, such as waking up in the morning and simply walking around. And I remember all those times in which I saw the Holy Father carry Jesus’ Cross with great love. During those hard days, he repeatedly told us that suffering, together with prayer, is the most powerful force that can change the world.
In the following years, I tried to meet him whenever I could. There has never been a moment in which I did not feel the scent of his holiness. I always felt as if I was in front of a saint because every moment was lived in prayer. The Lord has given a great gift to His Church in the presence of John Paul II, the man who taught me that holiness consists in doing everything with simplicity for the glory of Christ.