It’s a true story, y’all. This is what happens where you’re a convert living in the Bible Belt. You think all popes take the name John Paul. But, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how they were able to distinguish between all the Pope John Paul I’s from the Pope John Paul II’s.
I can’t believe I just typed that.
Let’s go back about 25 years, to a time when I loved being Christian but I found myself intrigued by Catholicism. We only had a handful of friends who were Catholic and I wasn’t even sure there was a Catholic church in my hometown of 12,000 (there was). I was mostly Switzerland on the topic of Catholics. The friends we did have were nice enough, so to hate that religion seemed wrong. But, on the other hand there was this Pope guy and I wasn’t 100% sure of his intentions, so no, not singing their praises in the streets, either.
A couple of years later, I found myself enrolled in a huge state university, Texas A&M, and in need of a date to a sorority date party. The most handsome boy with bright blue eyes and dressed in a sharp khaki military uniform came sauntering down the walkway for our blind date. Ladies, beware of a man in uniform. I now have six kids with that guy. Isn’t life awesome sometimes?
At any rate, I found out halfway into the date he was Catholic. But, I was 18 and all BLUE EYES! UNIFORM! so the religion thing just sorta moved to the back of my mind. Big life skip here, but you’ll get that story some other time. We married in 1996, I converted to Catholicism and I finally started to learn more about this Pope guy. When I confessed to Scott that the pope naming thing was really confusing, he nearly fell off his chair from laughing so hard. It was then he explained to me that every pope chooses his own name, just after he’s elected by the College of Cardinals. Some popes choose names of their predecessor’s (hence the numbers at the end) and then some take on a completely new name, like Pope Francis (why he’s just Francis, but the next guy who takes that name will be Pope Francis II).
Scott and I found ourselves on pilgrimage to Italy with 20 teenagers in 2000, the Jubilee year. In that two-week span, we saw Pope John Paul II seven times. SEVEN. The most memorable, of course, was this:
Then, in the summer of 2002, I traveled to World Youth Day with more than 700 teenagers from our diocese and snapped this as his motorcade passed right by our barricades:
Yes, we were really that close both times.
For me, my memories of Pope John Paul II all center around a man who struggled with his health, his speech, his mobility. But the one thing he never struggled with? His mission. He showed me that in an age where the infirmed are thrown into nursing homes to be forgotten, babies are aborted because they are inconvenient and people with disabilities are mocked and cast aside, that every life has value. Every life can do the work of Christ, whether big or small, the value is never diminished. He believed that the value of family is the cornerstone of society, injustice against humanity was never to be tolerated and our call to evangelize is our most important life’s work.
So many times I stood in the Holy Father’s presence and watched him drool as he spoke, while a Cardinal discreetly wiped his mouth. So many times I teared up, listening to his beautiful Italian (and once, his beautiful English!) wondering if it would be my last time to hear him speak God’s message. So many times he caused me to pause, retrace my steps and rethink my faith in a new way. So many times he made me laugh. So many times.
While I never hugged his neck or touched his cheek, I did peer into his beautiful eyes and see an extraordinarly holy man who knew his mission. To draw people closer to Christ. Without a doubt, he did that for me time after time after time.
St. John Paul II, it’s an honor to have a son named after you and who now believes when he becomes pope, the naming thing will be a peace of cake. John Paul III anyone? Please intercede on our family’s behalf, and for the millions you touched during your pontificate. It was always an honor to be in your presence and now, it will be humbling to ask for your intercession.
JP2, we love you! And thank you Jenny for providing such a great place for everyone to share their stories.