Archive for April, 2011

BLESSED JOHN PAUL II – PART SIX

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Tomorrow morning at four o’clock (EDT) the Mass at which Pope John Paul II will be declared “blessed” will begin in the exact place where little more than six years ago he lay for his funeral Mass. I have thought a lot about this moment since the announcement of his beatification and particularly about my feelings about him and experiences with him, most of which I have already shared with you these past five days. First, it is extremely unusual for anyone like myself to say that on many occasions I shared Eucharist, the stage, the airplane, a helicopter,  prayer with a “Blessed” now only one verifiable miracle away from sainthood.  On the final day of  World Youth Day 1993 and before their departure for Rome, Bishop Stanislaus Dziwisz brought me unsolicited the gold vestment the Pope had worn on Saturday at Denver’s Cathedral for his Mass with the bishops of the United States and elsewhere gathered for World Youth Day. I still have it and wear it. Soon it will be a third-class relic, something which touched the person of a saint. I should probably retire it and never use it again – it has his coat of arms on the back. As he grows closer to sainthood, I think I grow more unworthy but I doubt if he would  think that.

John Paul II was at heart a simple man. He did not put on airs, seek to impress though he could get his message across better than a lot of other people. There is that marvelous picture of him (above) with his right hand raised in blessing and his white shirt under the cassock unbuttoned at the wrist where he had  forgotten to attach the cuff link. Sometimes his cassocks would be rumpled. That mattered little to him. He was consumed with preaching the Gospel and living the Gospel and thus was the consummate evangelizer – an evangelist something like  Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, telling the world about Jesus. Even non-Catholics had great respect for him and for his message as was evidenced by the near universal sense of loss expressed at the time of his death.

I have mentioned before he did not seem to take great concern in managing the vast Church he was chosen to lead. He left that to others. And contrary to what some people would or are saying, I don’t think he personally had any personal favorite people except friends from Poland. The doorkeeper and the one who made the judgments about who was worthy of the Pope’s presence and attention was his life-long personal secretary, Don Stanislaus Dziwisz. There rested the true source of access in his papacy. If you passed muster with later Bishop Dziwisz and now a Cardinal, you were almost always OK with the Holy Father. In the days just before the announcement of my appointment as bishop of St. Petersburg, Father David Toups, then a seminarian at the North American College met Bishop Dziwisz who knowing that he was from St. Petersburg said “soon a new bishop for you. You will like him!”

Saints do not get to be saints because every decision they made in life was correct or perfect. They are saints because of their personal holiness, their self-sacrificing service to the Gospel imperatives. Some of this negative criticism coming in advance of the beatification tomorrow reminds me of the run-up to World Youth Day of which I wrote on Wednesday – controversy, disdain, disbelief that Catholics could care for this man the way they do, etc. Yet polls indicate that this week 93% of all American Catholics surveyed love Pope John Paul II and are happy he is being recognized not as someone who always got it right in everything (except in matters of faith and morals) but as someone who was personally deeply holy. Quite frankly, he was the Pope who made us proud to be Catholic and I don’t think the naysayers will penetrate that reality this time as they failed to do in Denver. Pope Paul VI was perhaps a better manager of the Church worldwide and the Curia but he did not have the gifts of language facility, personal charm and charism, electricity which Blessed John Paul II was able to generate. Personally holy Paul VI was but it did not come through the way it did for his successor once removed.

Blessed John Paul II was always energized by a crowd. He sought out the spotlight and used it well for the good of the Gospel. With well over a hundred trips outside of Italy and several hundred outside of Rome but within Italy, he was a Pope of and for the people, no longer a “prisoner of the Vatican”. His focus was applying the Gospel to daily life. He begged the officers of the Conference at one pranzo or lunch to send him names of deeply holy, saintly married couples. He lamented that there were too few of them in the role of saints and that marriage deserved as much saintly regard as the priesthood or religious life. On another occasion when the Jewish community of the United States was up in arms about the rumored proposal that Queen Isabella of Spain would soon begin the process toward canonization, I knew she did not have a chance when his answer was “it is very difficult for royalty to become saints.”

Additionally, Blessed John Paul II had an unerring sense of popular piety and what it needed and when it could he helpful. There were many skeptics here in the United States church when he announced that the millenial year, 2000, would be a special year of Jubilee for the Church. Critics here said out loud, the time for Holy Years and great public religious celebrations had long passed. Well, the millions who came through Rome on the Millennial Holy Year did not think so and the Pope made a believer out of me that he sure knew a lot better than I what people would respond to when called to expressions of devotion and popular piety. Lots of Americans including about 150 with me from this diocese observed the Holy Year in 2000 and it was a success far beyond the imagination of many. He was almost infallible in knowing what would work to reawaken, even for an instant or a year, the deepest religious feelings of Catholics beginning with World Youth Days through the two Holy Years of his p0ntificate.

So today is more than a day for his native Polish people, it is a day for the whole Church. Did it come too quickly, history will ultimately be the judge. Pope St. Pius X, the last Pope to be beatified (and later canonized) took thirty-seven years to reach this moment but for this participant of the energy of his pontificate, I thank God I am alive for the moment. With Blessed John Paul II’s soul mate, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, I have now touched and been touched by two people whom the Church universal will likely soon refer to as “saints” but it didn’t take the process to convince me that these two were in different ways extraordinarily holy people.

So it has taken me this week about 7,500 words to share some of my experiences in my lifetime with this extraordinary moral force. I shall record the events in Rome and watch them when I can as I have an extremely busy week-end. But it will be wonderful to watch that vast piazza at St. Peters and the surrounding streets burst once again with people chanting as I know they will, “santo subito.” Blessed John Paul II, intercede with the Father to whom you are now close, to help this local Church serve all of God’s people.

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BLESSED POPE JOHN PAUL II – PART FIVE

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

When World Youth Day 1993 came to an end and knowing that my eleven year service to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops-United States Catholic Conference would most likely end on February 3, 1995, I was certain that my life as a U.S. “travel agent” for Pope John Paul II would come to an end and that in Denver I watched for the last time his plane leave these shores for Rome. Imagine my surprise when in 1994 we received notice that the Pope had accepted a second invitation from the United Nations for a visit later that year which would include Newark and Baltimore. Both Archbishop McCarrick (now a Cardinal) and Cardinal Keeler, archbishops of Newark and Baltimore respectively, had successfully lobbyed the Holy Father to visit their cities during what was to be simply a three day sojourn back in the United States. Once again my friends in Rome, Father Tucci, Monsignor Tscherrig and Dr. Gasbari got in touch with me and said, “guess what?” This trip was to be different, I was told, as it would not be a pastoral visit per se but a response to the U.N. which would include brief stops in the two cities.

The United Nations always likes to throw its weight around and in 1979 and again in 1994 did not want the Church to take control of the New York visit, or to put it bluntly, they did not want anyone else “raining on their parade.” In 1994 the papal representative to the United Nations shared their vision, so planning which the Holy See sought from the bishops’ conference became something of a challenge. I asked Archbishop McCarthy, of my home archdiocese of Miami, to lend me Father Michael Souckar to represent my office in the planning and the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the U.N. and the Office of Protocol of the United Nations basically told him to stay away from their moment. I might also add that even though the United States Secret Service was responsible for the Holy Father’s safety from landing to take-off, the U.N. did not “cotton” to their presence either. So the planning was somewhat challenging. To the disappointment of the United Nations, the arrival from Rome was to take place at Newark International Airport, not Kennedy, and the Pope would follow his usual custom when visiting a new arch/diocese of going directly to pray in the local Cathedral or Church in thanksgiving for his safe passage. This meant the magnificent and beautiful Cathedral in Newark. Then to top it all off, when the visit to the United Nations was finished, the Pope would celebrate Mass in what was then the new Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Unlike in 1979 when the Pope stayed at the Cardinal’s residence on Madison Avenue in New York, attached to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, this time the case was made that he would stay at the very small residence of the Permanent Observer to the United Nations from the Holy See on the East side.

Baltimore was to be the final stop on the visit prior to departure from the United States and its inclusion was due to the respect which the Pope had for Cardinal Keeler and the fact that Baltimore was the first diocese to be erected in the United States. After a couple of months of planning and preparation, the Holy Father fell in the shower and broke his leg, the trip was to be postponed for a year and I was home free. He eventually did all that I have outlined above in 1995 but I had left the bishops’ conference and personally felt that I had “done my time” with huge papal events.

I would see the Holy Father next in 1997, just after concluding my first year as bishop of St. Petersburg. The occasion was the Ad Limina Visit which is required of every bishop in the world whereby we visit the Successor of St. Peter, report on our diocese, and pray at the tomb of the Apostles which means Mass at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls where it is believed the mortal remains of St. Paul are buried and at St. Peter’s Basilica. Being always a gracious host, Pope John Paul II scheduled four occasions in one week in which the bishops on their Ad Limina (meaning to the “threshold of St. Peter) visits would be with him: concelebrate the morning Mass in his private chapel, pranzo (the midday meal), a private twenty minute audience with him in his office, and a final session in which he would offer a discourse to all the visiting bishops from each region in the United States. On my first visit, he said to me “You were the General Secretary?” As quickly as I replied “yes,” he said, “and now you are in St. Petersburg?” “Yes, thanks to you Holy Father,” I replied. And then without hesitating he said to me, “How is Bishop Larkin? Give him my best and my blessing.” When the Holy Father was a graduate student priest in Rome he lived at the Belgian College and Bishop Larkin as a young priest was there as well. In fact, Bishop Larkin and the future pope would take long walks in the afternoon during which Bishop Larkin taught Karol Wojtyla English. Then we made the obligatory trip to a large Rand McNally World Atlas on the table and he asked me to point out to him where St. Petersburg and the diocese was in the United States. We then sat down and he asked questions about vocations, the number of priests and religious, marriages, general information that I am sure we were all asked. When he was finished he would ring a bell and the papal photographer would magically appear from behind a curtain, take our picture together and on that occasion they brought Monsignor Muldoon into the office for a picture with the Pope as well.

My final time with Blessed John Paul II was a year before he died, April of 2004, and he was so infirm that I personally felt very guilty taking his time that day, as did all my brother bishops from the region. I have a picture of him taken with the group from what was then Region 4 of the USCCB – Wilmington, Delaware to Miami, Florida and I shall post it here. It was horrible taking my leave of him that day because I knew it would be my last time with a man who shaped my life in the Church and with whom I intersected on so many occasions and in so many ways. I only had similar feelings to those that day as a youngster in high school when I  would say “good-bye” to my aging grandparents in Boston during our once yearly visits knowing that I might never see them alive again. To this man I owed so many memories, so many blessings, the gift of my episcopal office. I never ever saw him mad, angry, distressed. He was always so serene and so supportive. Twenty-five years had passed since that moment when in Boston he came down for coffee at Cardinal Medeiros’ residence at 4:30am in his cassock, largely unbuttoned. Vigorous, athletic, needing practically no sleep, pumped by crowds and sharply focused when saying Mass, it was hard to see him laboring for breath and to be understood. There was a part of me that wished to embrace him, hug him, say thanks, but I knew he needed what was left of my time to prepare to see the next bishop in line and one did not do that with popes. My time with this saintly man had come to an end.

My final time in the presence of this saint in the making with the other bishops of Region IV

I was at Paris Charles deGaulle airport when I learned that John Paul II had gone to His Father’s house. I was returning from a Catholic Relief Services visit to Banda Ache in Indonesia where in ninety minutes 212,000 people has lost their lives in the tsunami the previous December 26th. I found a quiet corner, took out my rosary and offered him to the Father, Son, Spirit and to Mary to whom he had offered everything (“Totus Tuus”). I grieved his death and celebrated his life with the people of the Church of St. Petersburg like Catholics all over the world. He was in many ways, my spiritual father.

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BLESSED POPE JOHN PAUL II – PART FOUR

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Blessed John Paul II with the author in Miami in 1987.

I remember so well my first up close and personal meeting with Pope John Paul II. I had met Pope Paul VI as a layperson and had my picture taken with him at a General Audience. His eyes pierced right through me and he looked right at me. While not as facile with English as Pope John Paul II was, we still had a brief moment of eye and speech contact. That night I did not want to wash my hands. The first several meetings with Pope John Paul II were similar occasions but prior to becoming General Secretary and in preparation for the trip of 1987, I had my first meal with him in his apartment and in his dining room. Archbishop Marcinkus had given me a private tour through the papal apartments one summer when it was being repainted and the Holy Father and his entire household were at Castel Gandolfo but the first time for lunch (pranzo in Italian) I can remember thinking only “wow, if the boys on the block could only see me now.”

Pope John Paul II truly opened his life to others. There were guests for his morning Mass, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Cardinal O’Connor used to complain that he was always being invited to cena which is dinner and the Pope would usually only have soup, some small salad and a piece of fruit. The complaints made it to the papal kitchen apparently because for guests at night there soon were several courses set out but the Pope’s remained the same light meal.

The dining room was small, very plain but the table was expandable with limitations. Pranzo with the Holy Father would always consist of a small first course like prociutto and melon, a pasta course followed by a meat or chicken course, fruit and then dessert. The Pope ate fast and listened to all conversation but would only speak occasionally. My officers always had some business to do so “junior”  kept quiet most of the time. The meal would last about forty-five minutes and then we would accompany him to his private chapel where we would kneel in private prayer for about ten minutes and then he would take his leave for a rest. There would always be a small gift, usually papal rosaries, shared with us prior to our leaving the apartment.

His private quarters would have surprised almost any visitor. On the second floor where most guests were received the rooms are lit beautifully and there is damask and gold leaf cornices in the ceilings and beautiful but horribly uncomfortable chairs. If one was coming to see him in audience in the morning, you started in one room and were moved from room to room until you were finally in the waiting area nearest his office. His office was a large and spacious room almost totally devoid of furniture. He sat at a desk at one end and there was a chair for the visitor on the side of his good ear. His private bedroom struck me as so spartan that it was almost penitential. But the public rooms while they would never pass muster at the Ritz look richer than they are.  Popes live simply no matter what the world thinks.

I cannot remember an exhaustive discussion with the Holy Father on any of my trips and we went twice a year to meet with him and his officials of the Roman Curia. When we were there and the “iron curtain” was crumbling and Poland was beginning to smell the fresh air of freedom, he wondered out loud how his native homeland would fare since the people  had become so dependent on benefits from the state for which they would now have to work hard to replace. He disliked communism as both an economic and idealistic system but he also disliked unfettered capitalism, no matter what Republican and friendly writers say about his economic theory. I heard him personally too often on the subject. He was intrigued by religious pluralism in the U.S. which we were always at pains to say had served us well but never having tasted it he remained slightly skeptical. I would not call him a great conversationalist but then working in so many languages and doing it so well was in itself a major accomplishment.

The first moment when he called me his "Travel Agent" in the United States

He would occasionally, very occasionally, ask about a neuralgic situation in the Church in the United States or we would bring it up. Those conversations save one, which I will detail in the final of these reflections on Saturday dealing with clergy sexual abuse, remain largely confidential but minutes are in the archives of the episcopal conference in Washington and will be available to historians at the proper time. The administrative work of the Holy See did not interest him a great deal, most likely because there were others to attend to that, but one always had the sense that he was looking beyond the present generation to the Church of the future. It was almost as if when you were with him you could sense “today will take care of itself, it is tomorrow for which we must prepare.” Ever gracious, always hopeful, deeply spiritual, these are my memories of the man. A CEO he probably was not and sometimes perhaps the Church is better because of that but as a spiritual leader he had about himself a charism, a presence, a sense of serenity, which was disarming, assuring and hopeful.

I was never nervous or afraid in his presence. At times he was almost like an uncle one did not see often but who was always interested in how you were doing. He teased me on occasion like in Los Angeles when we arrived ahead of time for an event with oriental religions (Buddhism, Shintoism, Hindu, etc.) and were made to wait in the wings. He asked me, “What is wrong?” and I said “Holy Father we are early” to which he smiled and replied, “It will hurt my reputation to be early.” I laughed. The hardest question he ever asked me was at the University of South Carolina football stadium where he and Billy Graham were waiting in one of the portals to come out on stage and looking at the signage, he turned to me as asked “What is a Gamecock?” I told him it was a mascot and then he asked me what a “Gamecock mascot” was? I told him I would tell him on the plane later that night to New Orleans.

Most of all, however, I remember him in chapel and at prayer. Forty people could surround him at 645 in the morning in his private chapel  prior to Mass and one could almost hear him communicate with God from deep inside his being. They were the groans and sounds of a man in communication with something far deeper than most of us can ever go. It was eerie at times and certainly always mystical. There can be no doubt about his personal holiness.

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BLESSED JOHN PAUL II – PART THREE

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

In a long papacy and especially a historically important papacy like that of soon-to-be Blessed Pope John Paul II, significant milestones are passed and significant initiatives are begun. In the latter category, nothing should compare in modern Church history with the Pope’s desire to convene a World Youth Day somewhere in the world every two years. It was his idea; he called he first one, attended all the rest and seemed to draw inner strength every time. I became General Secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in February of 1989 and soon word began to circulate in Rome that the Holy Father wanted to celebrate a World Youth Day in the United States. My superiors were generally against it, at least my President, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati was, and for some good reasons. The United States did not have the infrastructure to gather so many young people in one place (trains, bus systems, etc. as Europe, for example ) and the potential cost. It also did not help that Cardinal John O’Connor of New York spoke vociferously against it on several occasions (mostly likely fearing that New York would be chosen). So there was a lot of internal opposition but there were also voices and minds open to exploring places and opportunities. My associate General Secretary at that time was Father Dennis Schnurr (now Archbishop of Cincinnati) and I gave him the principal task of site selection and putting together a proposal. They looked at a lot of places and finally began to settle on the Denver area, which Archbishop J. Francis Stafford (now a Cardinal) supported as long as financial and administrative help would come from the Conference. Denver was offered to the Pope for World Youth Day 1993 and accepted.

There were lots of challenges to be dealt with: transportation of the youth to and from Denver, weather variations from extremely hot in the day time to cold at night, infrastructure in Denver, transportation to the Vigil and Mass site, lodging a half million youth and lurking behind it all, both in Rome and the U.S. was the question of whether or not any young people from the US would actually come. Archbishop Pilarczyk handed the episcopal leadership of the planning over to his Vice-President, Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore who loved the “chase” so to speak and was a great help as well .

By 1993 the media in the United States had just about had enough of the Polish pope and the run-up to World Youth Day focused on how American Catholics were rejecting the Pope’s leadership on abortion, contraception, AIDS, you name it. They predicted that finally the Pope had made a bad decision in returning to the US and he would be greeted by nothing but protestors to his policies and dissent among the young. The trouble was that hard as they tried in Denver to find and interview a young attendee at WYD 93 to back up their claims of dissent, they failed. One young person after another stopped by a TV cameraperson or reporter and simply said something to the effect, “I love this Pope.” And the love affair continued.

At the conclusion of their longer than expected meeting, I am introduced to the President by the Holy Father

Shepherd One, the name I had given to the Secret Service in 1979 for the Pope’s plane arrived from Rome in Denver on a spectacular afternoon in August with President and Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea waiting on the tarmac. After the airport arrival, the Holy Father and President Clinton went separately to Regis College for a private meeting that was supposed to last only thirty minutes. At the end of the time set aside, Father Roberto Tucci, SJ and I went to the door where the Pope and President were meeting, opened it slightly only to have the Pope signal that he wanted more time with the young President. At forty five minutes they still had not emerged and finally Father Tucci sent Monsignor Dziwisz, the pope’s personal secretary and now a Cardinal, in to remind both that 70,000 young people were waiting at mile high stadium to welcome the Pope. Pictures were taken, gifts exchanged, and farewells shared and the mile-high World Youth Day was underway.

After the welcome ceremony the Holy Father took an unusual day off. Taking the Presidential helicopter, Marine One, he flew up into the east range of the Rockies and spent a whole day, mostly alone, walking in the forest (the Secret Service never far away but discreetly out of sight), praying, resting, gathering his strength for the World Youth Day activities which would follow. There were very few of our staff present with him and his closest staff that day and I know he loved the beauty of the American Rocky Mountains.

Young people were streaming into Denver by the hundreds of thousands (an estimated 550,000 attended the closing Mass) and their love of the Pope and their faith was infectious, about as infectious as the burning heat on the east slope of the Rockies on a hot summer afternoon. All those “doubting Thomases” in Rome and the US could not believe what they were seeing. Contrary to popular opinion, World Youth Day 1993 in the U.S. was on its way to being a great success. And did John Paul connect with the young people or not? It was simply amazing. I was so proud of Father (he was personally made a Monsignor in the Cathedral sacristy in Denver by the Pope in front of his parents) Schnurr and his whole group for planning and staging what will probably long be remembered as one of the most successful gatherings of young people certainly in this hemisphere and/or continent and this great Pope in a long time. There have indeed been larger crowds, especially in Europe and the Philippines and some South American countries but again it is easier for the youth to gather in those places. What we did so impressed Pope John Paul II that weeks after when we dined with him in Rome to review World Youth Day, he ordered his assistant to give Archbishop Keeler, the President, Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, the Vice-President, Monsignor Schnurr and myself four gold chalices, usually gifts to host bishops only. Monsignor Dziwisz presented them to us in the presence of the pope and four times said in Italian, molto prezioso which translates into “you had better not lose these!” The Holy Father still had Denver and our young people clearly on his mind and in his memory.

As he is beatified this Sunday, my mind will largely be on how effective he was with young people. They loved him. And even in his later, infirm and enfeebled years, they still loved him. Sometime after canonization, some Pope will declare John Paul a patron saint of something or other. I shall being praying that he might be declared the patron of young people. I shall never see the likes of him again in the brief time I have left and I doubt if the Church will for sometime either. I am happy that our country could make him so happy on that occasion and this time when he boarded an American Airlines 767 for home and Rome, with my own term as General Secretary drawing near an end, I thought for sure I was finished with papal trips. The Holy Father himself would refer to me as his “travel agent” in the U.S. There was now very personal recognition and a growing bond between us. Tomorrow I shall recall moments with Blessed John Paul II while I was serving as General Secretary, then the fifth installment will be reflections of our time together after he named me bishop and finally, some thoughts on his forthcoming beatification.

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BLESSED JOHN PAUL II – PART TWO

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

The second visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States was radically different in many ways from the first. President Ronald Reagan had invited the Pope to make a pastoral visit this time and the United Nations was not involved. Since the last visit in 1979 both the Pope and the President were survivors of assassination attempts and so security concerns were ratcheted up significantly. More people and dioceses wanted the Pope even though the cost to the host diocese ran at least three million dollars a day and with nine years in office behind him, every US Church agency wanted a piece of the action. Disney World wanted him desperately for a meeting with the youth of the world at EPCOT (making me one of the few Floridians to ever say “no” to Disney and live to tell of it).

In Rome my dear friend Archbishop Marcinkus had been replaced by a new team of papal advance members led by the Jesuit head of Vatican Radio, Father Roberto Tucci, SJ who is now a cardinal. Assisting him were two of the finest men one would wish to work with, Monsignor Emil Tscherrig from the Secretariat of State and Dr. Alberto Gasbari from Vatican Radio. But John Paul remained the same, just a little older. There were two preparatory meetings with him, which included lunch in his apartment, and a meeting of all the host bishops and the archbishops of the United States with him in Rome in advance of the meeting. Tensions were running somewhat high as agendas were beginning to emerge in the United States. In the visit of 1979, only an address by Sister Theresa Kane, the head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious had raised some concerns but I am certain that the Pope did not hear her. Little known to anyone at the time was that the young pope was near deaf in one ear and the sound in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was not advantageous for him to hear. Almost every picture ever taken with him never shows him looking at the person but turned so he could hear with his good ear.

But it seemed in 1987 everyone wanted an opportunity to speak to him, hoping to elicit a favorable response. So Monsignor Frank McNulty of Newark addressed him on behalf of priests in Miami, Donna Hanson, a lay woman from Spokane, Washington addressed him in San Francisco, Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop Quinn, Archbishop Pilarczyk and Archbishop Weakland addressed him in Los Angeles, the National Catholic Education Association, the Catholic Health Association, and many others spoke their concerns. The Holy Father always had a prepared response as those writing for him had advance looks at the texts.

The Native American Blessing with an Eagle's Feather

Three things gave him special energy in this visit. Although earlier in the day for the first and only time in his entire pontificate his Mass was interrupted and rained out in Miami, he was at his best that day in Columbia, South Carolina on the campus of that state’s University. He could lot believe the tens of thousands of students in a state he knew to be 1% Catholic would gather on the quadrangle and cheer for him and remain while he conducted a ninety minute ecumenical and interreligious exchange with religious leaders from throughout the United States. There were as many students still there when he exited as when he went in and he commented to me, “These young people, they are not Catholic?”  Later he and Billy Graham were to share the stage in the football stadium for a truly ecumenical prayer service, which was frowned upon by some of those travelling with him from Rome.

He also enjoyed a meeting with Native Americans in Phoenix, which included their ritual blessing with an eagle feather, also causing some alacrity with his travelling party that a largely pagan sign would be used with him but something, which clearly he enjoyed.

The Holy Father Meeting Young People at the Superdome

And as in 1979 at Madison Square Garden, in 1987 the meeting with the young people of New Orleans and elsewhere who would fill the vast Superdome brought him special happiness. He was more comfortable and at ease with kids than with bishops by far. Their spontaneous response to his obvious thrill of being with them and their love for him drew them closer to him always.

Popes carry burdens of soul, which few others have to carry. The 1987 visit was right when the AIDS pandemic was spreading and becoming better known in the U.S. Church teaching on condom use and abstinence were not well received in many quarters and to those involved in AIDS ministry and even to those suffering from the disease, the Church in general and the Pope especially seemed insensitive, uncaring, even cruel. When at the old Serra Mission in San Francisco at a prayer service for those with AIDS the pope picked up a child with aids and hugged an adult and embraced him, hearts melted and compassion marked the Gospel. It was quite a moment for me, one that I had helped arrange with the assistance of my Roman colleagues but somewhat looked askance at by others.

John Paul II arrived in Miami with a long and warm meeting between two men nearly killed by an assassin’s bullet and it ended with Vice-President George H. W. Bush offering farewell remarks in Detroit, a city added at the insistence of Archbishop Edmund Szoka which required flying back two thirds of the way across the U.S. and then West again into the Northwest Territory to Fort Simpson in Canada to keep a date he had to cancel several years prior due to fog precluding the landing of his plane at that time. The Holy Father was clearly weakened by his horrible moment with history and not exactly the same as in 1979 but he kept a hectic daily schedule nonetheless and there was always that time for meditation and prayer. Bone tired at midday, on this trip with a scheduled brief rest he would recover well enough to keep a schedule that would kill me at his age, drawing strength from inside himself and at prayer, never wishing to disappoint anyone, and renewed by the adulation of the masses of people who came to pray, listen and reflect with him, especially the young. On both occasions he was impressed with the vitality of the Church in the United States and liked the manner in which we prayed. He mentioned this to the officers and I after his trip in the Fall of 1987 at lunch with him in Rome. For this trip I asked Bishop Larkin if I could have the services of Father John Tapp to assist essentially in the care and feeding of the papal entourage who came with the Pope from Rome and he had his hands full. Also I hired a young lay man from Indiana to work for a year and a half with the Secret Service and the USCC Communications office in arranging for the needs of the local and traveling press (about 300 travelled with us on the full ten day trip). His name was Paul Etienne and he is now the Bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

On the TWA 747 in Detroit I climbed the steps once again. This time he was ready for me having been reminded by someone of my quip in Washington in 1979 that he could come back but not too soon. He gave me that half smile and said, “Father, will I be welcome again?” Off he went to Fort Simpson and my life returned to normal.

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BLESSED POPE JOHN PAUL II – PART ONE

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Who can forget the chants from the hundreds of thousands of people gathered in and around St. Peter’s square six years ago for the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II, “santo subito” roughly translated “make him a saint and quick.” On Sunday next the penultimate step will be taken, once again in St. Peter’s Square, when his long-time and trusted assistant, now his successor, Pope Benedict XVI raises John Paul II to the rank of “blessed” – the final and what will surely be brief stop on the path to sainthood. Each day this week I would like to share with some of my memories of my personal interaction with our late Holy Father.

My first encounter with the newly elected Pope John Paul II came in July of 1979 in the same St. Peter’s Square in Rome when I was introduced to him as the US priest who would organize his just announced first trip to the United States at the invitation of both the United Nations and President Carter. “I will pray for you,” he said and that was it – it said it all. He had seven months prior completed his first pastoral journey outside of Rome to Mexico and the Bahamas as well as his first return trip to his native Poland. Now he had announced a brief visit attached to a stop first in Ireland and then an address to the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York and I travelled to Rome to measure the magnitude of the man who would soon be coming to our shores.

Ordained only one year at the time and released by my Archbishop to the service of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for a period of four months which was all we had from announcement of the visit to its completion, I met my Vatican counterpart, the late Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus and the pope on the same day. The latter was easier on me than the former. During the coming months I would sit in meetings and occasionally say a Vatican prompted “no” to the Carter White House (the President and Mrs. Carter wanted a private luncheon for the Pope at the White House), Cardinal Cody and “Lady Jane Byrne” who was the Mayor of Chicago and practically wanted tickets for Holy Communion for a lot of Chicago political bosses in return for preparing streets, providing personal police protection, and readying Grant Park for the Mass. She and her Cardinal were not getting along.

Two trips in three months from the U.S. to the Vatican and the program was complete and agreed to and in a dense fog and rainy day in Boston, Aer Lingus 747 named “Saint Patrick” arrived right on time to begin an intense six day visit.

Almost everybody was on edge, save the Holy Father. He did what he was told when told and was easy to care for, except for that built in radar that found a child to kiss at Madison Square Garden, a wheel chair person to embrace at Lincoln Park in Chicago when leaving Marine One, the Presidential helicopter lent to him by President Carter for the visit, or spending more time playing with the college students at Catholic University who would endlessly chant “John Paul II, we love you” to which when he heard enough he would respond “John Paul II loves you too.” I thought it would never end.

My most profound memories in a kaleidoscope of challenges and events of the Pope himself, however, was his prayerfulness. On the first morning Archbishop Marcinkus and I had just finished saying Mass at 430am in the former Archbishop’s Residence in Boston when down the stairs and wearing his white cassock like a night robe came the Pope for first coffee and then a long hour of prayer in the chapel. Heavy, incessant pouring rain did not bother his meditation while saying Mass on Boston Common and no matter how late we completed the day’s program and got him home for the night for rest, he would dart to the chapel to be left alone with the Lord for final prayer.

When not giving a talk or kissing babies or blessing the physically challenged, out would come the Rosary or his Divine Office. He was young, vigorous then, deeply spiritual which he remained till his death, with more energy than I or anyone else in his travelling retinue. I knew when he walked into the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, minutes after his arrival from Ireland, and the priests stood on the pews shouting for joy and clapping their hands incessantly that I was about to participate in an introduction of an extraordinary person to my country.

DesMoines was added by +Marcinkus and myself when on the phone we concluded that there was more to the US than great cities and urban areas. True a farmer from neighboring Kansas named Joe Hayes had written to me to ask the Pope to come to America’s heartland for even just a few hours but it was the Archbishop who after a long conversation with me went upstairs to the third floor of the papal apartments and made the case for DesMoines and the Mass at Living History Farms. The Holy Father on the way to Chicago that afternoon uncharacteristically thanked +Marcinkus for including the stop.

A week in the presence of such holiness was I thought the experience of a lifetime and there was a frog in my throat when the Pope climbed the massive steps of the TWA 747 which I had chartered and paid for to return to Rome. He was amazing, I thought. What an incredible gift God had provided to His Church in the person of this successor of St. Peter and what a credible, living witness to the Gospel and to the work of evangelization. “Good night and thank you, Holy Father,” were my final parting words (earlier in the day at the Apostolic Nunciature speaking for the Secret Service, the six diocesan coordinators and my staff I had said to him, “It has been a great honor, Holy Father, to have had you among us and all of us hope you will come again, but not too soon as we are tired.”) He smiled broadly and knowingly that his energy level exceeded our own, and I came down the steps to the tarmac saying that would be it for the Pope and me. Wrong. More tomorrow.

+RNL

 

HOLY WEEK IN PICTURES

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Here are some random moments from last week’s Triduum at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle.

You can click on any of the photos to launch a photo gallery and if you mouse-over the photos, you can view the captions

HE IS NOT HERE

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

The Lighting of the Easter Fire which begins the Easter Vigil

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (1 Cor. 15:14) With his customary insight, one of the first great converts to Christianity, St. Paul sums up exactly what Easter means to us. It is the epicenter of our faith upon which all else hinges. Without the Resurrection, Jesus would most likely have been just another good person who did good things who history remembers kindly but who lived and died like everyone else. But precisely because he rose from the dead, he is more. He is truly the Son of God. For the next fews weeks we will hear testimony of his Resurrecti0n from people who went to the tomb, encountered Him in his resurrected form, talked to Him, continued to be taught by Him. Easter is far more than an empty tomb. Pranksters could accomplish that. Easter and our faith which flows from it is all about victory over death and sin and new life in a new form. Jesus in his public ministry had raised the son of the widow of Nain, the daughter of Jairus and Lazarus back to life and they simply returned in their human form to continue their life until again a second and final time they had to die. But the resurrection of the Lord Jesus is dramatically different. He does not simply return in his human form but in resurrected form, like we shall all assume one day. Yes, He walked and talked and looked enough like His old self to be recognized at times but he also could appear and disappear, be unrecognizeable, no longer needing human nourishment, sleep and the like. Nor would He ever taste death again but  would live  in eternity with the Father and the Spirit. His resurrection not only defines his divinity but fulfills countless prophecies from the Old Testament and gives us faith for our own futures after our deaths.  The Easter event defines Jesus and  ourselves, gives us hope for what is to come to  us if we too live a life of virtue, seek forgiveness of our sins, and imitate as much as we humanly can our Savior and Lord. Happy Easter to all who read these words and may the news that “He is not here, he has risen” give hope and consolation to you in whatever you may face in life.

The first of four Baptisms at the Easter Vigil, 2011

In addition to the four catechumens, fourteen others were received into the Church and confirmed at the Easter Vigil

+RNL

 

 

LAY DAY

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

The term “lay day” has nautical origins and refers to those days when a ship/boat/vessel is neither racing, working, loading, etc. The boat simply lays on its anchor, attached to its mooring, or simply secure to its dock and the crew gets a day off from their usual routine, an opportunity to sleep late, work on personal projects like laundry, write letters, etc. In highly competitive sailboat racing, these days are pre-built into the schedule. For bishops Holy Saturday is a “lay day” – a day without Mass and mostly without appointments or expectations. Pastors and priests in parishes are hard at work preparing and rehearsing for the Easter Vigil (no rest for them) and sacristans, trainers of altar servers, etc. also seldom get the day off. But I do have it off until 830pm tonight and the glorious Easter Vigil.

Here are some thoughts about Holy Week this far. I have witnessed a steady diminution of people coming to Holy Thursday and Good Friday liturgies over the last fifteen years. From standing room only in 1996 to at best two-thirds full this year. A part is due to the shifting demographics of the Cathedral parish over this period of time with many older Catholics for whom Easter meant the entire Triduum either moving or dying. A part is also generational with young parents not having has the experience of accompanying their parents to the Holy Thursday and Good Friday services. Yesterday from the altar I thought that if something is not done to reverse this trend, my successor will be celebrating in front of an empty house in ten years, or almost empty. Triduum, Holy Thursday, Good Friday are just names for days for many younger practicing Catholics and are largely devoid of any real religious need to be present.

Those who do come worship with great reverence and dignity. On Holy Thursday the procession to the altar of reservation was long, prayerful, and richly spiritual for the several hundred who remained to pray. We wash a good number of feet at our Cathedral representative of all age groups and that helps swell attendance slightly. Since we reverence one huge cross at our Cathedral which I hold for an excruciating approximately fifteen minutes or so, I can see two categories of those approaching to kiss the wood of the cross – grandparents and their grandchildren. Maybe the latter is a good sign. I would estimate we had about 500 for Holy Thursday Mass and 650-700 for Good Friday but this is in a Church which comfortably can seat 1,200. There is some “heavy weather sailing” catechesis which needs to be done and soon on the services of Holy Week.

The Easter Vigil begins with sunset at 830pm tonight at our Cathedral and will end about three hours later. Working from an aging memory I think there are about five to be baptized and another twelve to be received into full communion. If history runs it course, there will be about 400 people in the Church for this most beautiful and joyous of all liturgies, save ordination. Time flies for me at the Vigil and it is over before I even begin to fidgit about how long it is lasting. It is simply wonderful.

Holy Week is a lot of work for our priests, deacons  and parish staffs but they joyfully embrace it to hear that welcome news, “He is not here, he has risen!” which comes tonight. The Churches will be jammed tomorrow and at the end of the day, we will settle back and count our many blessings: that we are Catholic, that we journeyed through all of Holy Week with Christ, and that He is Risen. More tomorrow.

+RNL

I THIRST

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

One of my unfulfilled hopes is to some day before meeting the Lord preach the “seven last words” on Good Friday someplace. It will probably await my retirement if it ever happens at all. It would require abundant research, prayerful thought and a discipline which is not usually found in my preaching. Part of the reason which I would like to do this is because I have long been fascinated by the words and phrases attributed to the Lord in his final hours. I know they mean far more than their simple literal meaning. This year, again with the help of Pope Benedict XVI’s superb book on Holy Week, things which I have often played with in my mind take on a richer and deeper meaning and at least today have given me the springboard to reflect on one example of those last words, “I Thirst.” What follows is my homily for Good Friday 2011 at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle. Lent comes to an end at the conclusion of the liturgy today. I hope it was a truly blessed journey for you.

+RNL

HOMILY FOR GOOD FRIDAY 2011

I THIRST

“I thirst” Christ cries from the cross before breathing his last. The torture and terror of the day has drained his body of almost all of its strength, his breath is badly labored, blood and water are flowing from the wounds of his hands and side, the pain must have been excruciating and many of us have had the personal experience either of dehydration or an unquenchable thirst.  Christ’s cry for something to help him in his final moments is so very human, so very understandable, and seemingly so very simple.

Pope Benedict XVI in his new book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (pages 217-219) opens up a meaning of these two words far beyond their simplicity. The Romans were beastly cruel but even they offered to those who were to be crucified prior to standing them upright a drink which would reduce the pain and suffering somewhat, an anesthetic of sorts. Jesus had refused, wishing no compromise with the plan of the Father, which through his death would redeem all of humankind of its sins and failings. He sought no relief for Himself to bring relief to others.

In the heat of the midday sun, the response of those near him, perhaps even his executioners, was to offer him a “poor man’s wine”, almost vinegar. The Holy Father points out in his book that in making this request Christ and in recording it John are recalling the text of Psalm 69 “for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

The Pope adds that there is to be found in those two words, “I Thirst” also a reference to the great prophet Isaiah’s parable of the vine which envisions Israel as a vast vineyard planted lovingly, given a special place where its product might produce the finest of wine and over which loving care has been taken. “He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” [Is 5:2] From his summit on the altar of the cross, Jesus looked out at the vineyard he had planted for three years and found no harvest, no wine but vinegar, no justice and no apparent love beyond that which hung on the cross.

Pope Benedict once again for a final time on these last words; “…God’s suffering over his people in a way that far transcends the historical moment, so too the scene at the cross far transcends the hour of Jesus’ death. It is not only Israel, but the Church, it is we ourselves who repeatedly respond to God’s bountiful love with vinegar – with a sour heart that is unable to perceive God’s love. “I thirst”: this cry of Jesus is directed to every one of us.” [p.218-219].

So my dear brothers and sisters, today as then Jesus is crying out to us to quench his thirst for souls, his desire for believers who embrace him and his message, who wish to live a life of love and sacrifice. He would have died in vain and even today his suffering might be denied relevancy if all we can offer him is vinegar, not our best but our cheapest or easiest,

It is not the Roman centurions sent to guard him and assure and record his death that he gazes at this afternoon; it is not his loving, heart pierced mother or his beloved friend John that he sees, it is us. He thirsts for us, for our hearts, for our love, for our fidelity, for our willingness to make sacrifices for our love of him and our neighbor.

In so many ways Israel failed him. How about us? Is it all about us and little about Him?

There is much that he would see good in our life as Church today. We do care for the poor, we do act justly and love constantly as the prophet Micah suggests, but do we walk humbly before the Lord? Or perhaps more apropos to this moment are we sitting here, listening indeed but not internalizing the events, which for far too many are merely historical, and not of importance to this moment. He thirsts for you and I and we are unable to satisfy that thirst by simply recalling history. We must make the most of every moment given us in this life to spread and share his love – with joy. The parents who sacrifice for the education of their children give him more than vinegar to quench his thirst. The parish or people who work for justice in our world and community give him more than vinegar to quench his thirst. The couple that despite the occasional challenges of married life together renew their love for each other daily and remain faithful give him more than vinegar. The priest or religious who carry some of the crosses of always being on call to serve God’s people quench his thirst and give him more than vinegar. The teenager who says no to drugs, sex outside of marriage, use of alcohol quench his thirst and give him more than vinegar,

So those words, so seemingly simple, cry out to each of us today to examine our lives and check our response to Christ’s thirst born of his incredible suffering on the cross. They make his passion real once again in our lives. They make us more than bystanders who have gathered to hear once again a good story, reverence a cross, approach the Body of Christ automatically without thinking of the consequences, for Him and for us, of his sacrifice.

If Good Friday is truly to be “good” then we offer him a response to His thirst, which says, “I get it, Jesus.” I am yours and you are mine.