John Paul the Great

The pope’s trip to the Americas has ended in Mexico with the canonization of the fabled Juan Diego of Guadalupe, the 464th saint recognized by the church since John Paul’s papacy began. The pontiff has now recognized more saints than all his predecessors combined. His readiness to canonize is in service of an eagerness to evangelize. This is John Paul’s desire: To raise up from as many nationalities, ethnic groups and indigenous peoples as possible a saint who is of them, from them and yet an exemplar of the universal church.

Keep the base and build the base.

Twelve million people lined the streets of Mexico City to greet John Paul the day he arrived—12 million! The church may have suffered in the field this year, but the troops apparently remain.

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What did his trip accomplish? Something big. He proved that no matter how healthy or capable-seeming the pope is or is not, he is here, he is loved, he has power, he is a presence. The trip was a reply to those within and without the church who have called for the pope’s resignation or retirement. John Paul said, through his actions, God decides when a pope “resigns”; God will take the pope from the earth, and as long as God keeps the pope here, the pope will fill the shoes of the Fisherman and do the work of the Lord.

I don’t think we’ll be hearing any more calls for the pontiff’s departure any time soon.

By presenting the fact of his presence, the pope demonstrated not his personal power but the enduring power of the papacy itself, and of the church, too, come hell or high water, come scandal or shame.

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On the streets of Mexico City they sobbed as he went by. Did you see it on the news? The pope was in the glass-enclosed popemobile, and as he passed, the people who jammed the streets and sidewalks reached out to him with their hands and burst into tears and sobs.

The pope they were reaching for, of course, was not the sturdy, charismatic man in white who had wowed the crowds on his first trip to Mexico as pope, 23 years ago.

This man is old, a caged lion bent and spent.

And still they sobbed and reached for him.


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“The force of his presence was like a blow to the heart.” That’s how the actor Richard Burton described meeting Winston Churchill. I thought of that after I met the pope.

It was late June 2000, and I was visiting Rome to speak to a business group. When I was invited to speak I called a friend of a friend in the New York Archdiocese and asked if I could get a ticket to an audience with the pope. She took down the number I’d be staying at and told me to stand by.

I was to be in Rome for five days, and each day I hoped a call would come. The day before I left, the phone rang in my room, and a young woman with perfectly enunciated English told me that the next morning I would see the pope. “Go to the big bronze doors of the Vatican,” she said, “and wait.”

That’s what I wrote in my notes. No address, just big bronze doors, Vatican.

The next morning at sunrise I hailed a taxi and said in English: “The big bronze doors of the Vatican,” and the driver said “OK!” as if he’d been told that destination before. We drove through silent streets. I was excited. You’re supposed to get less enthusiastic about people as you get older, or at least less moved by them, and be less impressed by them, but that hasn’t happened to me. And the pope was the person I most admired in the world—John Paul the Great. Writer, poet, evangelist, lover of children, comforter of the pained, inspirer of the caged and controlled, resister of fascism, defeater of communism, definer and denouncer of materialism, great foe of the culture of death. A great man of the ages, a man for all seasons and times.

We got to the big bronze doors, and I stood in front of them in the thin morning sun. I knocked. The sound of my knocking seemed tinny, almost comic against the weight of the doors. No one answered.

Soon a young man came by—early 20s, tight black jeans, tight black T-shirt, pierced earrings up and down his ears, pierced earring in his eyebrow, black spiky hair, sideburns shaved to points on the curve of his jaw. We waited silently, looked at each other and looked away. Finally I looked at my watch. “Guess they’re not open yet,” I said.

He nodded and said, “I’m early.”

“Do you have an appointment here?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m going to see the pope.”

He was from Canada, he said. He writes rock music and is an aspiring musician. He was in Rome for work and asked his bishop back home if he could see the pope.

I told him I had done the same.

Little by little they came, our motley crew. A hearty, high-colored middle-aged man with an Australian accent, in a sober black suit, his wife and teenage children. They looked like the richest Catholics in Sydney. Then a Polish family in full native costume—dirndles, braided hair, pleated white dresses and blue cotton bows. Soon there were more than a dozen of us.

Suddenly, silently the great bronze doors opened, and we were gestured in by a man in a janitor’s clothes. He hustled us up the stairs, past Swiss Guards in their black-and-red uniforms. Up a series of marble stairs, to the right and up some more, then a landing from which one looked down great marble halls. Then up another floor until we were ushered into a huge and stately room of white-gray marble.

Here waiting were more people. There were about 30 of us in all now, and we lined the room standing against the walls. The room filled with excited chatter. I had stuck with my heavy-metal Canadian, and the Australians had stuck with us.

My Canadian looked at me and said, with some urgency, “What do we do when we meet him? How do you meet the pope?”

It hadn’t occurred to me to think about this. I shrugged and said, like a happy American idiot, “I think you shake his hand.”

“You do?” he said. “I thought you, like, kiss it, or bow.”

“I don’t know,” I said, and turned to the Australian burgher to ask him when suddenly there was silence. Like a blanket of silence had fallen on us. And we all looked in the same direction and suddenly two great doors were opening soundlessly, and then there was a rustling noise, and we stood straight up.

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And he entered. John Paul the Great. Massive and frail, full and bent—a man like frail marble. He was dressed in white robes, a white beanie on his white hair. He walked slowly, a cane in his right hand, his head tilting forward. The face expressionless—the Parkinsonian mask.

He stepped into the room and the room burst into applause.

And suddenly there was singing. It was a group of dark-haired young nuns dressed in blue. They almost levitated at the sight of him and they had burst into song. He stopped in front of them and his head went back and his chest filled. Then he took his cane and shook it at them merrily and said in a baritone that filled the room, “Philippines!”


And the nuns exploded with applause because they were indeed from the Philippines and he had known. They one after another knelt on the floor as he walked past.

Now he looked at another little group and he shook his cane comically as he passed them and said, “Brah-SILL!”

And the Brazilians cheered and started to cry.

And the pope moveed on, shuffling now, and he walked by an extraordinary looking young man—coal black hair, thick and cut so that it was standing straight up. It looked like Pentecost hair. He was slim, Asian, in the dress of a seminarian. He had been watching things dreamily, happily, his hands in the attitude of prayer, and then the pope stopped, turned and held his cane toward him.

“China!” he said.

And the young man slid to his knees, bent toward the floor and moved to kiss the pope’s shoe.

And the pope caught him in an embrace as if to say No, I am not your hero, you are my hero.

And from nowhere came to me the electric charge of an intuition. I felt with certainty that I had just witnessed a future saint embrace a future cardinal of Beijing.

And my eyes filled with tears.

The pope proceeded down the line, nodding and patting, and when he got to me I jerked into a kind of curtsy-bow and touched his right hand with my hands. Then I bent and covered his thick old knuckles with Chanel No. 23 Red Raspberry lipstick.

I couldn’t help it. I think I said, “Papa.” He nodded. He was probably thinking, “Oh Lord, another lipstick leaver.” And then he pressed into my hand a soft brown plastic envelope bearing an imprint of the papal seal. When I opened it later I saw light and inexpensive rosary beads, the crucifix of which carried an aluminum Christ on the cross, his broken body ungainly and without grace. It is this depiction of Christ that the pope carries at the top of his crozier, the long silver staff he uses when he walks into the world.

I still have the picture of our meeting. I never saw anyone take it and was surprised to receive it in the mail. I look gooney. Like a happy gooney woman transported by bliss.

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The last person in line was the Canadian rocker. When the pope came to him, he bowed and kissed John Paul’s hand. “I have written music for you,” he said. He showed the pope a sheet of music, beautifully done by hand and laminated. It had a title like “A Song for John Paul II.”

The pope looked at it and said, “You wrote?”

And the rocker, rocking, said, “Yes, for you.”

The pope took it, walked 10 feet away to where there was a big brown table, and signed it in a big flourish—Johannes Paulus II. And came and handed it back.

And then he walked on, and out of the room.

There was silence again until it was broken softly by my rocker. “This is the greatest day of my life,” he said to me. And my eyes filled with tears again because I knew it was true and because it is a privilege to be there on the best day of another human being’s life.

We were ushered out and I went into the streets of Rome and in time hailed a cab and told the cab driver all about it. I was so excited I left my eyeglasses on the seat. But I still had the rosary beads, and they’re here with me right now, right in front of me on my desk.

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So when I saw those sobbing, reaching Mexicans I knew what they knew. When you see the pope something happens. You expect to be moved but it’s bigger than that and more surprising. It feels like a gaiety brought by goodness. It feels like a bubbling up. I think some people feel humbled by some unseen gravity and others lifted by some unknown lightness.

It’s like some great white dove flutters from your chest, emerges and flies upward. And you didn’t even know it was there. And all this leaves you reaching outward, toward one who is broken, ungainly, without grace. And it fills you with tears. Or so it seems to me. At least that was my experience.