As the world and the Church mark the centenary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II on May 18, a kaleidoscope of memories will shape my prayer and reflection that day. John Paul II at his dinner table, insatiably curious and full of humor; John Paul II groaning in prayer before the altar in the chapel of the papal apartment; John Paul II laughing at me from the Popemobile as I trudged along a dusty road outside Camagüey, Cuba, looking for the friends who had left me behind at a papal Mass in January 1998; John Paul II, his face frozen by Parkinson’s Disease, speaking silently through his eyes in October 2003, “See what’s become of me….”; John Paul II, back in good form two months later, asking about my daughter’s recent wedding and chaffing me about whether I was ready to be a nonno [grandfather]; John Paul II lying in state in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace, his features natural and in repose, wearing the battered cordovan loafers that used to drive the traditional managers of popes crazy.
Each of these vignettes (and the others in my memoir of the saint, “Lessons in Hope”), has a particular personal resonance. Two, I suggest, capture the essence of the man for everyone on this centenary.
It was March 2000 and I was in Jerusalem with NBC to cover the papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land. For weeks, a global controversy about the pope’s impending visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial, had raged. What would he say? What should he say? What could he say?
I found out two days before the event, when, on a drizzly Tuesday evening, I walked past the Old City’s New Gate to the Notre Dame Center, where the papal party was staying. There, a friendly curial official slipped me a diskette with the texts of the pope’s speeches and homilies during his visit.
Back in my hotel room, I went immediately to the remarks prepared for Yad Vashem. As I read them, I felt a chill run down my spine. At Yad Vashem itself, on March 23, the sight of the octogenarian pope bowed in silent prayer over the memorial hall’s eternal flame quickly muted the world’s pre-visit argument and speculation. And then came those unforgettable — and stunningly appropriate — words: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to make some sense of the memories that come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah [the Holocaust].”
Some days later, I got a phone call from an Israeli friend, Menahem Milson, a former soldier and distinguished scholar who had seen a lot in his life.
“I just had to tell you,” he said, “that Arnona [his wife] and I cried throughout the pope’s visit to Yad Vashem. This was wisdom, humaneness, and integrity personified. Nothing was missing. Nothing more needed to be said.”
The second emblematic memory from that papal pilgrimage came on March 26 when John Paul walked slowly down the great esplanade before the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple, stopped at the Wall, bowed his head in prayer, and then — like millions of pilgrims before him — left a petition in one of the Wall’s crevices:
God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the nations; we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.
Joannes Paulus PP. II.
These two episodes give us the key to understanding Pope St. John Paul II. He could preach solidarity, embody solidarity, and call people to a deeper solidarity because he was a radically converted Christian disciple: one who believed in the depth of his being that salvation history — the story of God’s self-revelation to the People of Israel and ultimately in Jesus Christ — is the deepest truth, the inner truth, of world history.
John Paul II, who was likely seen in person by more people than any human being in history, could move millions because the grace of God shone through him, ennobling all whom its brightness and warmth touched. That was the key to the John Paul II effect: radiant, Christ-centered faith.