The call came out of the blue from Pope John Paul II’s spokesman. It was spring of 2002, and in a few weeks the pope would be leading the Via Crucis at Rome’s Colosseum, one of the most deeply moving moments in Holy Week liturgies.
As always, the pontiff would stop at each of the 14 stations to pray and listen to meditations, which were usually written by a theologian. But this year, the pope wanted journalists to write the meditations, and I was given the first station: the Agony in the Garden. Was I willing to accept this unusual task?
Of course, I replied without hesitation, and hung up the phone. Then the doubts set in. What would I find to say that merited the attention of the pope — and a global TV audience — on Good Friday? What fresh insights could I possibly bring to that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was spiritually tormented? What if I wrote something theologically flawed? In my imagination, I envisioned my 500-word meditation falling flat — or worse, prompting a papal shaking of the head.
My fellow journalists were experiencing similar qualms. But we all set to work, sweating and reflecting and handing in our assignments. When Good Friday came, Pope John Paul listened to each of them with interest and appreciation. They spoke of modern war and suffering, of the cry of oppression, of life in prison. Later, the pope thanked us for our contributions. He had wanted to hear our voices, a different perspective on the Passion, and that’s exactly what he got.
I think of this episode whenever people ask me what Pope John Paul II was like, because it illustrates one of his most amazing qualities: an openness to the experiences and perceptions of other people, including those outside the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy.
John Paul was a bridge-builder. He was convinced that the best way to spread the Gospel in the modern age was to engage people in dialogue, challenge them if necessary, but meet them on their ground. He believed faith should not be locked up like gold in Fort Knox, but circulated widely, in encounters with people from every sector of society.
When John Paul was elected in October 1978, I stood in St. Peter’s Square and listened as he described himself as a man “from a far country.” True, he was the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years, but when it came to modern walks of life, he was anything but distant. As a young man, he had split stone at a quarry, tended goal on a soccer team, worked in a chemical factory, written poetry, performed in plays and supported a network that smuggled Jews to safety during the German occupation of Poland.
Seminarian in Hiding
He turned to the priesthood during World War II, studying in a clandestine seminary in Krakow, and was ordained in 1946, just as the communist regime came to power. As a young pastor, he took university students on camping and canoeing excursions in the Polish countryside, discussing theology with them on hiking paths or ski trails. At the age of 38, he was named a bishop — an appointment he learned about while on a kayaking trip with young people.
Elected pope at 58, he immediately impressed people with his dynamism. But it wasn’t just his youthful energy that made him different, it was his willingness to move the papal ministry outside its traditional borders.
As a globe-trotter who eventually visited 129 countries, he took the papacy to the people. He was not just checking off countries, but immersing himself in the hopes and problems of local cultures. Whether he was drinking a native herbal drink from a coconut shell in Fiji, dropping in on a family in a West African hut or embracing children with AIDS at a California hospital, he made it real and personal.
These were the many faces of the universal Church, and he cared about them. As he said before setting out on his first trip, he wanted to meet the people of the world — “get to know them, embrace them and tell them all that God loves them.”
In South Africa in 1995, Pope John Paul was behind schedule on a particularly busy day. I watched as his aides tried to hurry him out of a packed church where hundreds of Catholics had waited for hours to greet him. But the pope would not be rushed: he greeted nearly each and every one of the parishioners, chatting with them, shaking their hands and listening to their stories.
If he didn’t speak the local language on these trips, the polyglot pope tried to learn enough to get by. When he went to Tanzania in 1990, he studied en route with a cassette tape and amazed his listeners by addressing them in near-perfect Swahili.
At the Vatican, his lunch table became a revolving forum for guests that included bishops, lay Catholics and experts of every kind. John Paul was intellectually curious, and he used these mealtimes to informally explore topics ranging from international politics to the role of Catholic schools. He discussed health care with experts from Catholic hospitals and others, using their input in his documents, homilies and speeches. The point was, the Church was learning as well as preaching.
John Paul also met with scientists, convinced that the relationship between faith and science could be improved. The Polish pope eventually broke new ground in Church teaching on such topics as evolution, brain death and genetic research, and made history when he told scientists in 1992 that the Church had erred when it condemned Galileo for asserting that the earth revolved around the sun.
The pope, of course, held his share of official audiences with an array of political leaders and heads of state. As a pool reporter, I was fortunate enough to witness many of them. But I also saw him welcome lesser celebrities, including actors, athletes and performers, in encounters that were enlivened by the pope’s personal warmth and sense of humor. He donned Bono’s sunglasses, accepted a guitar from B.B. King and discussed the finer points of soccer with players from every continent.
And he made a point of seeking out non-celebrities, too. Throughout his 26 years as pope, John Paul made time for ordinary people — spending Sundays with parish groups, meeting annually with Rome’s street sweepers or stopping by to greet the residents of the Vatican’s homeless shelter, which was built at the pope’s own suggestion. In his many encounters with young people, he always put them at ease, swaying to their music, holding their hands and laughing at their jokes.
All this took tremendous energy and dedication, and as he grew older Pope John Paul occasionally talked about the source of his inspiration. The “most important and beautiful thing for me,” he said, was his priestly vocation. It may have surprised some of his listeners, but the pope emphasized that what kept him going was not the power of the papacy but the spiritual strength that flowed from his identity as a priest.
For Pope John Paul, the priesthood was the center, and it led out in all directions — to the altar for daily Mass, to meetings at the Vatican and to the ends of the earth for encounters with local cultures.
In that sense, his canonization is far more than the celebration of a pontificate. It’s the recognition of a holiness that knew no boundaries.
MR. THAVIS retired as the chief of the Rome bureau of the Catholic News Service in 2012, where he had covered the Vatican since 1983. He divides his time between Minnesota and Rome.