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What is it like to pray with a saint? I never expected to know. But as the banners went up in St. Peter's Square calling for the speedy canonization of Karol Wojtyla [at his funeral in April 2005], my thoughts gratefully turned to a few occasions when I had the opportunity to pray in the presence of Pope John Paul II.
In the Chapel. One October Saturday in Rome, in the 1980s, I was invited to attend the pope's early morning Mass in his private chapel. The sun hadn't risen yet, as our group filed past the Swiss Guards and through the Bronze Doors in the right colonnade of St. Peter's Square.
It wasn't the first time I had gone through that imposing entrance. Just the year before, as part of a small group from the charismatic renewal, I had gone into the Apostolic Palace and been introduced to John Paul II. I was impressed by his words—spontaneous remarks about the importance of praying with one's whole self, not just with the head—and by his warmth. I hadn't known that a papal greeting could include a hug and a kiss on the forehead and cheek!
Our Saturday morning encounter with the pope did not begin on a note of high mysticism. Spotting him just outside the chapel door, three-year-old Catherine let out a loud, "Ooh, he looks like a ghost." It wasn't the most appropriate way to acknowledge the Vicar of Christ in his white cassock, but his reassuring, non-ghostly smile told us that all was well.
As he entered the chapel, though, it was as if the pope had eyes only for God. He headed for the altar and fell to his knees for about twenty minutes of prayer—first on the marble floor, then on the kneeler—before vesting for Mass. The Eucharistic celebration that followed was simple, but exceptionally moving: Here was a man deeply, intensely immersed in communion with his Lord.
I wasn't prepared for the effects of close contact with that sort of burning intensity. They began welling up in me later in the day, like a time-release capsule, during a long car ride to France. Sitting alone in the back seat, I could only stare out the window as wave after wave of love and mercy flooded my heart. It was a fire, too—an almost unbearably burning desire to know, love, and be fully for God.
Later, I tried to jot down a few reflections about the evangelizing, converting effects of praying with John Paul II. All I could manage were a few disconnected words. Yet whenever I look at that scrap of paper, it still throws off sparks. It fires my soul and stirs up my desire for God.
On the Square. “Come again,” were Pope John Paul's last words to our Saturday morning Mass group. I did return to Rome on various occasions. But it wasn't until spring 2005, more than twenty years later, that I walked through the Bronze Doors again for one last experience of praying in this pope's presence.
I had come to Rome with my husband, a son, and a granddaughter. We were midway through our family pilgrimage, when the pope took a turn for the worse. On April 2, during a late afternoon Mass at the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, it hit me that this was probably the last time we would hear John Paul's name mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer. As I unsuccessfully fought back tears, the church's magnificent mosaic of Christ's Second Coming dissolved into a blurry swirl of blues and golds. The pope died that evening.
Six emotion-packed days later, on the morning of the pope's funeral, I found myself in a group of journalists being escorted to our place in St. Peter's Square. It seemed right, somehow, to end up at those familiar Bronze Doors. Something stirred in me as I walked through—not just memory alone but holy fire. Being just one of millions praying in the presence of John Paul II's mortal remains was every bit as moving an experience as praying with him in a small chapel.
I took it all in from my perch atop the right colonnade. Almost directly in front of me was the pope's casket. Looming above to my left, like a yawning black hole, was the open window where we so often saw and heard him. Like the wind that was flipping the pages of the Gospel on the coffin and carrying the sounds of Latin, Greek, and Arabic chants, John Paul II had come and gone.
And yet . . . he was speaking still. All of Rome seemed filled with witnesses to the drawing and converting power of Karol Wojtyla's relationship with God.
I recall a middle-aged American man we met on a sidewalk two days before the funeral. He asked if he was going in the right direction for the Vatican. As we walked there together, he told us what had happened to him just the day before. He was at home watching the TV broadcasts from Rome, "when all of a sudden, I knew I had to be there!" He wasn't Catholic, had never been to Italy, and didn't yet have a place to stay. But he had hopped a flight, and there he was—not knowing quite why—feeling impelled to file past the pope's bier and attend his funeral. As we waved goodbye and saw our friend melt into the long waiting lines, we sensed a conversion story in the making.
Praying with John Paul II. In death, as in life, John Paul II continues to call out these stories of conversion and renewal. The experience doesn't require flying to Rome or walking through any bronze doors. It is available to anyone who takes the time to read, reflect, and pray over the legacy of his written works.
How near the Lord is! says the pope. How much he loves you! Open wide the doors to Christ!
Louise Perrotta is a former Word Among Us editor.