by Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter 4/2005 and the Boston City Paper 4/2007
The legacy of Pope John Paul II will be chronicled, celebrated, debated, cherished, pondered, analyzed, and remembered for many years to come. He has been pope for all but 13 years of my life, and I miss him. Although I am relieved his suffering his ended, I grieve at his passing.
It’s been very hard to watch the Holy Father fail over the last few years. I remember seeing him on the televised Christmas mass a few years back, realizing how much he’d declined, with his hands shaking so badly from Parkinson’s disease. I felt such sympathy and compassion, and often thought he should step down — he had already accomplished so much — and take his well-earned rest. But the Pontiff always made it clear that he would never do so; that he would be pope until his death.
But like many Catholics, I was wondering what would happen if he continued to fail — what if he became incapacitated or fell into a vegetative state like Terry Schivo? Would he continue to be Pope under those circumstances? Would a Conclave form to elect a new Pope while John Paul II was on a respirator? What if he was conscious but couldn’t ever speak? There was no precedent for any of these scenarios.
But it never came to that, and the Holy Father is finally out of pain, out of suffering, and I hope that he knew the profound difference he made in this world.
Like many others, I have my own special memories of the pope, and I would like to share two of them with you.
In October 1979, I got to see the Pope up close. I was 14 years old and living in Dorchester, and we learned that the new Pope would be visiting America for the first time, and his initial stop would be Boston. Not only would he be saying a mass on Boston Common, his motorcade would be passing through Uphams Corner, just a few streets over from where I lived!
The hype was big — both newspapers had heavy coverage and the Herald even featured a flag displaying the pope’s banner. We were given the day off from school. Picture of the Holy Father — and pennants, banners, and other souvenirs — were everywhere!
I remember the Pope’s arrival in Boston; first lady Rosalyn Carter as well as Humberto Cardinal Medeiros were on hand as the Pope said in English, “I greet you, America the beautiful.”
We all headed to Uphams Corner in the early afternoon; as expected there were thousands of people lined up along the route, along with police snipers on the roofs of buildings. Security was tight, but this was two years before the attempt on the Pontiff’s life, and he would be riding in an open car, not the enclosed Pope mobile of later years.
Joining many others who’d found a higher perch, I climbed up on the cement walls of the old burial ground. I was ready with my 110-instamatic camera. The air was electric. This was once in a lifetime.
Suddenly, people were cheering. There he was, standing through the roof of a car. He was wearing red vestments with white sleeves, waving to us. He was so young, so vibrant, and so real! The Pope was here in Uphams Corner. It was amazing. To be part of that moment, to feel his very presence … I’ll never forget it.
I wish my pictures had come out better (the grainy picture above is the one I took), but the motorcade passed by so quickly, and my 110 camera wasn’t the best. But looking at that image of the pope, all those years ago, well, it still stuns me to see the Holy Father in the same neighborhoods where I grew up.
We all headed home and watched the historic mass on Boston Common. The heavy rain didn’t keep the people away — it was an amazing sight.
Years later, in 2000, I was here in Foxboro visiting Saint Mary’s rectory to see Father Steve Madden for confession. Afterward, we were chatting about his recent visit to Rome to meet the Holy Father. I could see the joy in Father Steve’s eyes, what the visit had meant to him. Then, Father Steve shared something I didn’t know — he got his Calling to be a priest that same day I was taking my pictures in Uphams Corner. Steve Madden was one of the tens of thousands standing in the rain on Boston Common that day as the Pope said mass. At one point, the Holy Father quoted the words of Jesus, “Come, follow me,” and Steve knew — he knew — that was his calling to be a priest. He said he knew God was talking to him. And as this town knows, Steve became a wonderful priest who continues to do the work of God so well.
What a remarkable man, John Paul II. He revolutionized the Papacy and opened it up to the world. Before, most popes confined themselves to Rome. They were distant, seemingly unapproachable. Not John Paul. He was the most-traveled pope in history and very much a man of the world, visiting more than 120 countries. He delivered more than 2,000 public addresses.
He accomplished so much, some of it unimaginable. He apologized for wrongdoings of the early church, especially its treatment of Jews. He wasn’t afraid of anyone and didn’t care about politics. He met with Arafat. Castro. Gorbechev. Bush. And countless others. And in each case, he let them know what he thought. He denounced wars. Materialism. Dictatorships. Human rights violations. And so much more.
He brought the Catholic message to an unprecedented number of people around the world, and endeared himself to billions with his warmth, charisma, courage and integrity. He was one of the most energetic and hard-working men ever to occupy the papal see.
When TIME magazine named him its Man of the Year in 1994, it said that he generated an electricity “unmatched by anyone else on earth.”
He was an icon. His presence was magnetic; the Holy Spirit truly flowed within him.
One CNN report said, “It is doubtful there has ever been a pope who so successfully translated his strength, determination and faith into such widespread respect and goodwill. In a world of shifting trends and leaders of questionable virtue, John Paul II was a towering figure at the moral center of modern life. ”
The night before John Paul II died, we saw millions of people — maybe billions — around the world, united in prayer. The unification of so many people demonstrated that the Church is indeed alive, indeed flourishing, and will continue. That is his legacy.
God Bless you, Pope John Paul II. Thank you for being a good shepherd to us — not just Catholics, but all people. Thank you for your tireless efforts and dedication, your courage, your zeal, your integrity. Thank you for fighting for human rights and peace and freedom. You brought Christ’s message to the world in such a dynamic way. May you rest in peace, Holy Father.