For whatever reason (probably the combination of the rhyming and that guy playing guitar with his feet), one of the most enduring memories of my childhood is hearing the crowd chant “JPII, we love you” at World Youth Day in 1995.
I was seven years old, and didn’t really understand why they were chanting; I didn’t understand what World Youth Day was; and I certainly didn’t understand the theology or history of the papacy. But I did know that guy was the pope. And I knew that he was a really good man, and that I loved him.
I never saw him in person. I was supposed to, but things happened and people died and I think my mom felt worse about making us miss him than the fact that our grandmother was gone.
I’ve been Catholic all my life. Really Catholic, not just go-to-Mass-on-Easter-and-mumble-along-with-the-creed Catholic. I was seventeen when he died. The death of the only pope I’d ever known was huge. I went to Mass. I stayed up on Friday, waiting for news. I remember feeling like I was in some sort of weird vigil; I knew it made no difference if some girl in Milwaukee was awake when the pope died, but I wanted to be. When he did die, I cried. I got up at two in the morning to watch his funeral. I had to take the ACT the next morning, but I stayed awake through the whole thing. And two weeks later when the man who had celebrated his Mass of Christian Burial was elected Benedict XVI, I cried about that too.
(In fact, if you go back to my old blog and look at the entries from that week- wow. Why hello there, hyperbole. Are you planning on staying for the summer? Embarrassing. I was a horrible writer in high school.)
I loved him in the simple, childlike way he inspired in most people. I never read any of his writings while he was alive. While I was vaguely aware of his accomplishments and gratified by the outpouring of praise at his death, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of what he’d accomplished.
By happy circumstance, I’ve ended up in an academic field that allows me to study him.
I get it now. I’ve read his encyclicals, his books, his groundbreaking work in interfaith relations. Despite my last name, it’s not a nationalistic thing for me, but rather that same childlike love I felt when I was seven.
The concluding sentence- concluding chapter, really- of my thesis was about him. He wasn’t perfect. Many people disagreed with him, and there was a certain amount of criticism for his papacy that, while in most cases it can be disputed, cannot be ignored.
But, at least for me, nothing can alter the image of an elderly man, weakened by disease and moving clearly only with great personal pain, shuffling to the Wailing Wall and placing a prayer between the stones; a prayer begging forgiveness and understanding, a prayer directed not only at his childhood friends who suffered but at my children who will have to work for a better world.
I never saw him.
But I am going to World Youth Day this summer.
And I’m positive that Blessed John Paul II will see me.