John Paul II was the first pope I ever knew. I don’t remember when I first became aware of him — he was just always there, on the news, in the media. Not being Catholic, not having any Catholic friends, I never felt he had a direct impact on my life. But as I grew older, I watched him travel widely. I saw his witness, how he reached out to Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and Christians of all stripes. As I began to seek, he was there to welcome. And I grew to love this man, this servant of God, who was so full of love for all humanity.
By my twenties, I had come to see Pope John Paul as a loving, wise, grandfatherly figure, a spiritual father to all Christendom and all the world. He began to grow old and feeble as my own beloved grandfather grew old and feeble. My heart ached to see him stumble and fall, to see him weaken, yet continue on his mission.
As I developed as an historian, and studied the history of the Church, I became fascinated with the popes, these leaders who claimed their mandate and descent from the Apostle Peter. I remember getting carried away for hours on Wikipedia, going down through the ages of the papacy. I am by nature drawn to lists. Lists, the putting of items into order, give me a sense of order and coherence. As a young teenager and fan of the space program, I memorized the missions and crews of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and the first half dozen Space Shuttle missions. At sixteen, I became enthralled by genealogy, and quickly committed a complex web of names and dates, ancestors and descendants and family relationships, to memory. And in my twenties, I was captured by yet another list: the popes of Rome.
In 2005, as Pope John Paul entered his final days on this earth, I was planning a trip to Rome with a school group. I had looked forward to seeing the pope, but then, at the beginning of April, just weeks before we were to go, the pope’s health took a turn for the worse. He was dying. During those final hours, I felt a heaviness I’ve only felt a few times since, in the final hours of close loved ones. The night before he died, I joined the world in their deathwatch, staying up on the couch and falling asleep in front of the TV, so that I would not miss the moment if it came.
He died on Saturday, April 2, 2005, after a papacy of twenty-six years. I felt a profound sadness, watching the mourners in St. Peter’s Square, and hearing the bells toll. That night I wrote in my blog:
Pope John Paul II died today.
I am not Catholic, so I do not feel the same profound sense of loss that many of you may feel. But I know that he was a great man, who served God and God’s children, and did a lot of good in this world. And I admire him for that, and I am saddened by his passing.
Requiescat in pace, Serve Servorum Dei.
I watched with equally rapt attention as the papal conclave began on 18 April. Not only was I watching history unfolding, but I realized that if the conclave ran long, it might impact my group’s ability to tour the Vatican and see the Sistine Chapel. (But wouldn’t that be an exciting time to be in Rome!) Thankfully, it only lasted about a day. The result was the election of Pope Benedict XVI, whom I would also come to cherish in the years to come.
But I will always feel that John Paul II was “my pope.” Even though I was not Catholic, even though I had no real claim to him, I admired him greatly and found in him a spiritual father, a light on the horizon, at a time when I was first beginning to earnestly seek. My love for John Paul has played no small part in my journey to the Church.