This is the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday and of the Beatification of Pope John Paul II. There is so much that could be said about our beloved and soon-to-be Blessed JP II, but since so much has been said already by so many more learned than I, may it suffice for me to share the one thing that no one else could share: my one small encounter with the Pope.
I know people who had the pleasure of knowing John Paul II personally, or of going to a private Mass with him, or other amazing encounters. My one brief moment with him was nothing like that -- in fact, it was an encounter so small, so ordinary, so unexpected that it was clearly a moment of daily life being intersected by divine grace.
It was the summer of 2002, and I was part of a group of international alumni for NET Ministries who were serving as volunteers at World Youth Day in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. We had gathered together with an intimate crowd of, oh, say half a million other young people from around the world to greet Pope John Paul II as he rode in on his Pope-mobile for the opening Mass.
The path that the Pope would take for his entrance could not be known ahead of time for reasons of safety, but shortly before he entered Exhibition Place my friends and I realized that he would be coming on a path not far from us. I was excited -- I had been to a previous World Youth Day, but had been nowhere close to the Holy Father. However, my excitement was short-lived as people started to crowd close to the movable fences that had been put up along his driving path. I decided that it was probably not in keeping with the spirit of World Youth Day to push people out of my way to see the Pope, and resigned myself to staying where I was and patiently awaiting his arrival into our area.
Soon, I could see the top of the Pope-mobile over the heads of the crowd in front of me. We were so close to the Pope, but I knew that I wouldn't be able to see him because of the crowd. Then, in an unforgettable and entirely unexpected moment, it happened -- the crowd parted in front of me. I saw Pope John Paul II. He saw me! He looked directly into my eyes and smiled. I cried.
There was only one way to describe the look the Pope gave to me. Pope John Paul II described Jesus' encounter with the rich young man so beautifully in his encyclical on The Splendour of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, and when Pope John Paul II looked me in the eye, I knew it was the same look that Jesus had given the rich young man (Mark 10:21) -- it was the look of love. It was a look so profound, so sincere, that it will never be forgotten.
In his final World Youth Day homily given in Toronto and in his life, Pope John Paul II spoke these moving words:
You are young, and the Pope is old, 82 or 83 years of life is not the same as 22 or 23. But the Pope still fully identifies with your hopes and aspirations. Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young. You are our hope, the young are our hope.
Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.
I finish with a prayer.
O Lord Jesus Christ, keep these young people in your love. Let them hear your voice and believe what you say, for you alone have the words of life.
Teach them how to profess their faith, bestow their love, and impart their hope to others.
Make them convincing witnesses to your Gospel in a world so much in need of your saving grace.
Make them the new people of the Beatitudes, that they may be the salt of the earth and the light of the world at the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium!
Almost-Blessed Pope John Paul II, pray for us!Mary, Mother of the Church, protect and guide these young men and women of the Twenty-first Century. Keep us all close to your maternal heart. Amen.
Peace and all good,