My son stiff-armed soon-to-be Blessed John Paul II

News that Pope Benedict XVI has cleared the way for the beatification of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, on May 1, was met in my home with jubilation. My two oldest children (12 and 10) feel like they know him — and they’ve got the pictures on the wall to prove it. 

We lived in Rome from the mid-1990s to 2003. For a brief period, we occupied an apartment with a stunningly close view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. The pope somehow felt like a next-door neighbor. 

As a Vatican employee and then an accredited member of the Vatican press corps, I frequently had the opportunity to observe the pope up close, and even greet him on multiple occasions. 

For our family, Pope John Paul was integral to the rhythm of our lives: on the nightly television news and the radio, or in person at audiences, Masses or the Sunday Angelus meditation in St. Peter’s Square. Or in all the myriad papal traditions — hearing confessions on Good Friday, sharing a meal with the homeless at Christmas, visiting the Marian statue at Piazza di Spagna on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, processing through the streets of Rome with the Eucharist on Corpus Christi — that gradually became woven into our family’s way of experiencing the cycle of seasons. Especially because our family was brand-new, and still adding young members. 

But as I mentioned at the beginning, the apex of this experience for my children was meeting the pope in a private audience in 2001. In the group of about 30 people, my wife was the only one with small children. As she approached, the pontiff lit up at their sight. He cupped my daughter’s face in his hands and kissed her forehead. (Yes, we have the picture).  

He tried to do the same to my nearly-2-year-old son. Instead, he got a squirming, teething, crying toddler’s stiff arm right in the face. (Yes, we have that photo, too.) Thankfully, the pope didn’t seem to mind. 

To this day, my wife feels a strong emotional connection to Pope John Paul, and fairly frequently finds consolation in praying for his intercession in ordinary daily trials and travails. 

Since announcement of the beatification, she’s been playing — I think on infinite loop — her favorite tracks from “Abbà Pater,” the 1999 music CD that overlays contemporary, world and classical music on Pope John Paul’s voice, recorded during liturgies and encounters with crowds of faithful around the globe. 

Already in 1999, the pontiff’s health was in marked decline, and in the track or two from that period you can hear his voice is thinner, higher and even a little slurred from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Nonetheless, his zeal, and his connection with the people to whom he was talking, is unmistakable. 

For us, the connection is as strong now as it was a decade ago.