This post is dedicated to Sarah Behrend, my loyal first and only reader.
Ten years ago today, on the eve of the feast of Divine Mercy, I was given a tremendous blessing by God. My friends and I were leaving Loreto, Italy, after making a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto where Mary received the Annunciation of the archangel Gabriel and Jesus spent His childhood. Before boarding the train to go back to our school campus in Gaming Austria, I saw a picture of John Paul II and told my friends that I didn’t think he had much longer to live. The night before we saw on the TV prayers offered for him in St. John Lateran and his health was in terribly poor condition. We boarded the train that evening and began our long ride back to Gaming.
While traveling that night, one of my friends received a text message. John Paul II had passed away. The mood had become very somber and not a few of us tried to hold back tears. He was our pope. He was our hero. He was the man who believed in us when the world did not. He was guiding light in the midst of confusion. He was our saint! Now we had lost him and we ourselves felt very lost. Our return trip was mostly silent on account of this surreal moment we were now experiencing.
Upon our return the next day, April 3, our school had miraculously arranged for us to go down to Rome that night to pay our last respects to the late pontiff. I didn’t know whether to go because I was so low on money but God moved me to go even though I didn’t know why. After traveling throughout the night, we arrived in Rome early in the morning of April 4 and got in line to enter St. Peter’s.
Thankfully we only had to wait a few hours and I had the chance to teach a reporter about the Immaculate Conception. I have visited St. Peter’s several times but this time was very different. Thousands of people had come to see our beloved pope but never had such a magnificent church with so many people feel so empty. It felt as though I had entered an abandoned building. So many emotions were filling my heart. I was joyful to see so many people come and the impact John Paul II had on the Church and the world, but I was also crestfallen that the only pope I ever knew was no longer here for me. Upon coming closer to the baldacchino, I could barely make out his red chasuble in the sea of people. Finally, we saw him and I stood still for a brief moment to thank him for all that he had done for the Church and for me. I realized at that moment why God wanted me here. I came for all my loved ones who could not be here. I prayed for all of them and thanked John Paul II on behalf of them for I knew they would have wanted to give their thanks to him for giving himself completely in service to God and the Church. The flow of the crowd pushed my friends and I to the side and we offered up prayers of thanks to God and to our holy pope who had gone to his heavenly reward.
While writing this post, the emotions of the past fill me with a deep sadness that John Paul II is no longer on earth but this sadness is borne out of a great love that I think most of my generation still has for him. Our love for him is not because of anything he had done, but simply because he first loved us like God does for all of us as St. John says in his first letter, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The love which John Paul II has poured into us—this love which is truly the love of God made manifest his servant—has completely transformed so many lives so that we cannot but help to respond in love to him as our true spiritual father. His belief in us to be saints gave us the courage to follow Christ and know that we have a value that is beyond this world as when he said, “Remember, Christ is calling you; the Church needs you; the Pope believes in you and he expects great things of you.”
Now that our beloved Holy Father is no longer with us, I happily await the day when I can meet him in heaven. But for now, I must live up to the loving expectations of John Paul II and love others like he loved me in my personal call to holiness. I can best display my gratitude to our pope by loving others and in this way his mission of love continues into future generations. When Jesus gave the new commandment to love another as He loved us, He gave a love that has a binding force to unite all generations. It is the love of God given to us through John Paul II that makes us sons and daughters of God and it is this love that we must give to others to help them encounter Christ. In the end, it is this love that reunites us with our loved ones in heaven, including Saint John Paul II.