John Paul II made people look at things in new ways

This story appears in the Papal canonizations feature series. View the full series.
Local youths perform a song as Pope John Paul II visits Shillong in India in 1986. (CNS photo)
Local youths perform a song as Pope John Paul II visits Shillong in India in 1986. (CNS photo)

by William T. Ditewig

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So much has already by written about the life, times and ministry of St. John Paul II by people far more qualified to do so than I. My task here is to reflect on the impact of his canonization, along with that of St. John XXIII, on Sunday. If saints are the pictures in our ecclesial family photo albums, then what will the images of St. John Paul II bring to mind as inspirations for those of us still on our pilgrim's way?

My album has a number of images of St. John Paul II. In 1978, I was a young naval officer embarked in a submarine in the North Atlantic. Before we left port, Paul VI was pope, although he was ailing. Then, a few days later while we were at sea, we received the news that Paul had died, and that the world's cardinals were gathering to elect his successor. Not long after, we heard of the election of John Paul I. We returned to port for some repairs, and then put out to sea again a few weeks later. Again, the news came of the pope's death and the gathering of the cardinals; at first, we thought that the Navy base had mistakenly sent out the broadcast from the previous month! Then we realized that John Paul I had died suddenly and we were again awaiting a new pope.

We followed with interest the news that the new pope, a young man from Poland -- the first non-Italian in more than 400 years -- had been elected, taking the name John Paul II. My memories are strong about all of this because of the context of where we heard the news: a nuclear-powered submarine at sea. One hundred twenty men on board, many of them Catholics who attended weekly Communion services while underway, and almost everyone was mesmerized by the news. The death of one pope, the election and sudden death of a second pope, and then the election of a stunningly different kind of man as the third pope, all in little more than a month, had the whole crew interested and intrigued. What was happening anyway, and what might it all mean?

After I retired from the Navy years later, my family and I were living in the Washington archdiocese when John Paul II celebrated Mass at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1995. Our pastor asked me to lead a busload of parishioners to the ballpark. I took our daughters along, and our high schooler could hardly contain her excitement about seeing the pope. "He's so great," she said. "I just love him!"

I was a little surprised, as she hadn't shown that enthusiasm before. I asked her what specifically about the pope appealed to her. Was there something he had said, or something specific he had done, to impress her so much? Well, no, she answered, nothing specific. It's just that, well, he was so great!

The reaction at the ballpark by the rest of the crowd certainly echoed our daughter's reaction. When the popemobile came onto the field and took a victory lap around the perimeter, the place went wild. The adulation was palpable.

My next images are from an event five years later. During the Holy Year of 2000, the Jubilee Day for Deacons was held at the Vatican in February. My wife and I joined thousands of other deacons and families for a series of events, including an audience with the pope in Paul VI Hall. John Paul arrived and we all prayed together. He then gave a remarkable address on deacons as "apostles of the new evangelization."

The first image I carry with me comes from the middle of his talk. Most of us were using the simultaneous translation equipment, listening to the talk in our own languages. We saw the pope look up from his text and the translators went silent. The pope leaned forward and said, with the translators scrambling to keep up with his ad lib, "Dear deacons, perhaps some of you are tired because of the burden of your duties, because of frustration due to unsuccessful apostolic projects, because many misunderstand you. Do not lose heart! Throw yourselves into Christ's arms: He will refresh you." After our applause, he returned to his prepared text.

The second image came as he was leaving the hall. His health had begun to deteriorate and he was walking slowly and with a cane. He stood up in front of his chair as we all applauded. Gradually, he turned and started walking toward the wings of the stage. After a few rather halting steps, he turned back to the audience and waved, getting another burst of applause and cheering. He headed back toward the wings, took a few more steps, and stopped again, to the same response. Finally, just as he was disappearing from the stage, he suddenly re-appeared, waved with his cane, which really got everyone going, and then left the stage.

What do these images evoke? I will always associate St. John Paul II with putting out into uncharted waters, perhaps because some of us first encountered him while we were ourselves "at sea." While members of the Roman Curia certainly respected him, he was nonetheless an outsider coming into the See of Peter in Rome. He made people look at things in new and different ways, simply because he himself was "new and different" from what had gone before.

His ability to move a crowd was impressive but also a bit disconcerting. The force of his own personality and his much documented skill as an actor made him a persuasive force, but admirers could also enter into adulation of the personality itself. No one would say that he was not brilliant and passionate about evangelization. However, I sometimes wonder from that day at the ballpark whether he was always successful in helping people actually understand the profound substance of what he was trying to say and do.

Perhaps the most powerful image in my collection was his spontaneous exhortation in the middle of his address to us deacons. In it, we were able to see not only the teacher and the powerful leader, but also the poet and the spiritual man. His words were spoken from the heart of one suffering servant to others. It was clear that he himself had encountered, and was perhaps still encountering, the same kind of suffering he was addressing to us. It was a powerful, insightful and intimate moment, one that the world's deacons all came away from talking about; it was the highlight of the audience.

Finally, in his leave-taking that day, we saw a man dealing with his increasing frailty, but even then finding a way to use that frailty to touch and to teach others. There was laughter and appreciation as he did it, and all of us thought it was a wonderful way for anyone to "exit the stage": as a person who is self-aware, interested in touching and serving others to the last.

Others can debate the nuances and import of his teaching and his papacy. As for me, I can only share these personal images of a very human man who tried with integrity, vision and power to proclaim Christ to the entire world, using the gifts -- and even the weaknesses -- he had been given.

[William Ditewig, a deacon of the Washington archdiocese, is serving in the Monterey, Calif., diocese and teaching at Santa Clara University. He is to assist at the Mass of canonization April 27.]

A version of this story appeared in the April 25-May 8, 2014 print issue under the headline: My pictures of St. John Paul II.

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