The Pope has died. As a Pole, as a young person, and as a part of the world, my heart is heavy at his loss. Everyone has a story about the man who touched millions.
I am no exception. My family moved from Poland to Italy when I was a child. There I began a long relationship with Pope John Paul II. On my first visit I was a couple rows from where the Pope was greeting people in St. Peter’s Basilica. I was on my father’s shoulders, a girl of five, yelling “Pope, Pope,” in polish. He, with his great love reached out his hands over the heads of rows of people. I reached for him, leaning and leaning, people bowing their heads down to make way. The Pope grasped my hands and it was that moment that he grasped my soul. The two of us connected for one moment in time.
The second time I met the Pope at one of his regular Wednesday audiences. I was eager to see him again and so nervous that he might not see me. He approached me and I looked up at him and again said “Pope” in polish. He looked at me and said, “Child, how did you get here?” Then, he took me into his arms and kissed my forehead. When he put me down I was red and stunned. I knew joy and kindness that I had never known before.
For many years (though I am only 20), I followed the Pope on his pilgrimages and attended his masses in Poland. Each time our bond was strengthened by shaking his hand or seeing his face.
My story is one that reflects the great love that filled this man, a man who loved youth. He was not a man that hid behind doctrine and teaching. In Poland, during his priesthood and when he became a Bishop, he would take groups of youth hiking and tell them to call him “uncle.” This was a precaution against the tyranny of communism because his actions were illegal. This beautiful man would take young couples and counsel them about life and love while canoeing. There is much talk about the Pope’s conservatism on contraception and yet he was the first to address the importance of sexual satisfaction for women. In his 1960’s landmark book, Sexuality and Responsibility, he told men to pay attention to the needs of women and cease to be sexually egocentric. He was a complicated man full of conviction.
He was a man loved by all people. He was a man loved by his people: he would sit by his window in Krakow where he sat and talked with theme. This was the way he won over the world, with his sincerity, his humility and his smile.
There is much left to say about Pope John Paul II, and so much that does not even need to be said, but is simply understood. He is the kind of person that made even unbelievers wish that heaven does exist, so that he may enter it. He made Poles proud to be Poles. He made people in the most dire straits and times of hopelessness know that someone is praying for them. This is why the whole world is watching and grieving. He was for us and we were for him. Now our hearts and our tears forever belong to him.
Much like the whole world, I am relieved that his pain is over. I am inspired that he finished his life with such dignity. I am overjoyed with every smile and joke he made. I am brought to tears by every picture. I am hopeful that he sees how we mourn him. I am saddened that I will never see that smile again nor hold that hand. I love him, Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II.
In November of 2003, The Voice published 21st Century Pope: The Challenge of the Coming Conclave, by Stephen Murgatroyd (v11 i41). The article discussed the process of selecting a new pope, and how this process has changed through the years. The article can be found here: http://www.ausu.org/voice/search/searchdisplay.php?ART=2112
* photo of the author and Pope John Paul II, courtesy the author.