Today would be Karol Wojtyla's (St. Pope John Paul II) 100th birthday so in tribute to him I would like to share some wonderful memories that I have of him.
I first saw him in person in the 90's when I was in my early 20's when I was a young adult chaperone from my parish in NJ for World Youth Day in Denver. It was my first experience of such a huge group of young people gathered in a Catholic (fun and prayerful) setting. To be honest it was so long ago that I don't remember any specific words from him but just how amazing it was that there were so many young people gathered together, so many kind adults passing out water bottles and encouragement to the youth visiting their city of Denver, and the excitement of everyone to see the Pope.
Later in my 20's I lived for a time in Italy and "fell in love" with Pope John Paul II. The first time I was in his presence while I lived in Rome, I felt like I was in the presence of Jesus, with so much love and holiness right in front of me even though Pope JP II was older and sick now. You saw beyond the physical part to a beautiful spirit filled with love and the living Gospel.
I used to live right outside the Vatican wall and see Pope John Paul II every Wednesday when he flew in by helicopter for his Wednesday audiences in the summer. I could hear his helicopter engine as it approached and I would run up to the roof of the building where I worked and wave to him as he flew in front of my building and turned to land in the Vatican gardens behind the wall across the street. I don't know if he ever saw me waving like a maniac at him, but I'm sure his pilot did and probably thought I was a little nuts. ;)
I worked for a time at the English edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, and it was a huge blessing to be able to read all of Pope John Paul II's homilies and so many beautiful articles while I worked there. I also used to walk to work through St. Peter's Square everyday and sometimes, he was celebrating Mass while I walked home after work. I used to think, "Wow. I can't believe I get to walk through St. Peter's everyday and see the Pope and live here in Rome." What a time of grace.
During the years I lived in Italy, I attended Masses with Pope John Paul II for Christmas Midnight Mass, various Masses of beatification and canonization such as Edith Stein and Padre Pio, and several others. I remember how he said frequently at these Masses how these saints lived truth in charity and charity in truth in their lives and I have prayed for the grace to follow in their footsteps.
In the year of the Great Jubilee of 2000, I lived in Siracusa, Sicily and I remember watching in our parish the live video of John Paul II opening the Holy Door at St. Peter's at Midnight Mass that night. It was amazing! Later that year, I was able to go back to Rome a few times for some special Masses of the Jubilee that were celebrated by Pope JP II. My most favorite was World Youth Day that year, which for the Jubilee year was celebrated in Rome. It was the most amazing week with the youth and culminated with the Friday evening celebration with John Paul II and the Saturday morning Mass. He was like a true father, speaking to his children. You felt his love for every soul present and felt Jesus' love for each of us. He was already weaker and more sick with Parkinsons but his spirit was filled with fire and with so much love! We had music and fireworks and I was overjoyed watching the Holy Father enjoy it all so much with the youth. It was so beautiful and made me cry with joy. Here is one of my favorite moments on Friday night when a young man ran up and made it to the Holy Father and was able to talk to him and give him a huge hug. It still makes me cry watching it. World Youth Day 2000
There's so much more ... but for now I'll stop here. St. John Paul II, we love you! Please pray for us to love Jesus and Mary and to be living Gospels like you!