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.
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.