By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 21, 2005
When Polish-born Father Adam Ozimek learned of the death of Pope John Paul II, he knew he had to go to Rome to say goodbye to the Holy Father, with whom he had visited several times through arrangements by his close childhood friend, Msgr. Mietek Mokrzycki, the Holy Father’s personal assistant.
So he took a direct flight to Rome at 5 p.m. the day after the pope’s death and was amazed by the strange sense of somber reverence and mourning that seemed to envelop the normally very loud and fast Italian city. A waiter at a restaurant where he ate lunch commented to him that John Paul was the greatest pope and that “Rome will never be the same.”
“That was the feeling in Rome: that it had lost something great and beautiful—that the eternal city will never be the same,” Father Ozimek recalled. “At the beginning, maybe Italians didn’t know how to take him, but they really took to him because he showed himself to be so loving and really kind to them,” said the parochial vicar from St. Andrew Church in Roswell. “Just to experience that was painful, to see the whole city in mourning that way.”
The city had provided free sleeping bags, blankets and water and pilgrims from across the globe slept on sidewalks all over Rome. He flipped through pictures of the city as he recalled his experience.
“What was really just absolutely amazing and astounding was to see hundreds of thousands of young people everywhere. The Spanish steps, hundreds of thousands of young people sleeping on sleeping bags, on benches and sidewalks. Rome had this all very well organized … You could see groups of people huddled together covered by blankets sleeping in one place keeping themselves warm, people from all over…and over a million just from Poland,” he said. “Young people with flags from all over the place. That’s what you saw in Rome, groups and groups and groups of people from all over. It was like World Youth Day but 20 times bigger.”
Father Ozimek felt a mixture of sadness and honor, especially for the million Poles who came, he said, adding that Poland has an abundance of vocations and sends many priests across Europe, to Russia and around the world.
“There are moments that I felt really sad that we’ve lost this great pope, this wonderful man. I didn’t feel so much sadness for myself but for over one million people who came to say goodbye from Poland, to this great man from Poland. They were really devastated but at the same time so joyful and happy to be able to be there to say their last goodbye. As far as I’m concerned, I had to be there to say my last goodbye. For me it was just like a closure. After all my visits and audiences with the pope, it was very important to be there for the very last time to see the Holy Father. I didn’t care how much money I was going to spend on the flight or how long I was going to be there, I just knew I had to go.”
At the same time he found it “extremely spiritually uplifting” to see so many people from all over the world and the international media attention on the beauty and truth of Catholicism.
“It’s a wonderful thing for the whole world to see the Catholic Church and how strong a lot of people still are in their Catholic faith. I think with the Holy Father’s death, hopefully that will bring a lot of spiritual renewal and hopefully a greater respect for the church, especially from young people, from the media because the media learned so much about the papacy and the Catholic Church. It was a great lesson for everyone, especially for people who may not be familiar with our Catholic faith,” he said. In his death “this has brought a tremendous renewal of the Catholic faith all over the world as well as an understanding for a lot of people about the Catholic faith and what it really represents to the people, that this one man would attract millions of people to come to him, not just in his passing” but throughout his pontificate.
He feels that his dignity in suffering was a powerful witness to all. “The world has been evangelized by just watching the pope and his illness and how he dealt in such a noble way with suffering and even in suffering; he showed that we find the Lord and the meaning of life. Often we find it through suffering; all this really was a tremendous evangelization for the whole world.”
Father Ozimek met briefly with his friend, with whom he had attended communist public school for nearly 15 years in Poland, and could see “he was devastated and they were getting ready for the funeral. He was just almost numb with everything that just happened because he was with the pope during his illness and his dying.”
Father Ozimek was able to bypass the 10-15 hour lines around Vatican City to see the pope’s body on Monday and Tuesday in St. Peter’s Basilica before leaving on Wednesday to return to the United States to preside at a weekend marriage ceremony.
On several previous trips to Rome, Msgr. Mokrzycki had arranged for him to visit with the pope. The Holy Father always remembered him and would ask him about his background, his family, and ministry in Atlanta.
His most memorable experience at the Vatican was eight years ago reconnecting in person with Msgr. Mokrzycki for the first time since he had left Poland to attend seminary in the United States to become a priest for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. His friend also arranged for him, his sister, and mother, who is now deceased, to meet with the pope for the first time. Father Ozimek celebrated Mass with the pope and a few other priests and then, with his family, met him in a private audience in the papal library. The pope asked about his life and was especially interested in his mother, as both had lived under Polish Nazi occupation and then communism and she was a concentration camp survivor.
“The pope also survived the war and almost got killed during the war, so there was this tremendous connection between my mom and the Holy Father. As far as I’m concerned, he was always very interested in where I worked, what kind of people I ministered to, in what part of the United States. He would ask, ‘Are you a good and holy priest?’ …You always received a personal rosary from him and a blessing.”
And it was an emotional reunion with his old friend. “It was really a very touching reunion for all of us, for my mother, because we all knew each other back in Poland,” he recalled. “We didn’t see each other for a really long time, and now we are both priests. He’s the pope’s assistant and I’m here in the U.S. It was really fascinating the way we met, and as soon as I found out he was the pope’s assistant I was quite taken by the whole thing. I couldn’t believe that actually he got this very important ministry job in the church, that he was the one chosen from so many priests…. He always told me every time we met that he still could not believe he was actually the one working for the pope and traveling with the pope all over the world. He had to always be by his side.”
While Father Ozimek had gone to the United States, Msgr. Mokrzycki, whom the pope made a monsignor a year ago, had attended seminary in communist Poland, where he had limited contact with him as everything he received in seminary was opened, read and scrutinized. The friend had become a priest in Poland and was asked by his bishop, who was a close friend of the pope, to go to Rome to study for a doctorate in moral theology and “to master at least a few foreign languages.” Appointed by the pope’s secretary, immediately after graduation he was trained by the Vatican to become Pope John Paul’s personal assistant, and he moved into the papal residence in an apartment above the pope’s.
Since that reunion meeting the two priests stayed in regular contact, and each time Father Ozimek went to Rome over the past eight years he’d go to the papal palace to meet his friend for lunch or dinner and visit with the pope. Father Ozimek believes that his friend was selected for such an important church position for his deep loyalty and humility and said he remains very humble. And indeed he always “came through” when Father Ozimek asked for a papal audience for himself, friends and parishioners seeking a meeting with the Holy Father.
Msgr. Mokrzycki traveled with the pope and assisted him with his administrative work, but as the pontiff became sicker his job turned more into that of a caregiver as he helped the pope dress and stayed by his side at the hospital. Msgr. Mokrzycki would hold the microphone for homilies when the pope spoke from his window, even the last time he appeared after returning home from the hospital in March, when he tried but was unable to speak.
“He always handed him his microphone…he handed him anything, his homily… He really was a personal assistant…that included taking him to his apartment, making sure he was taken care of before he went to bed and in the morning when he woke up, he dressed, he prepared him to celebrate the morning Mass,” said Father Ozimek. “His job really changed from only sorting out his mail and traveling with him and running errands for the Vatican, for the pope. It changed into really taking care of the pope in his sickness.”
His friend told him that the pope “treated him like his own family, his own son,” and he felt a deep bond with him. As the pope had recovered many times from sickness in the past, Father Ozimek believes that his friend and others at the Vatican thought the pontiff would live longer.
The Polish-American priest had the same impression during his last meeting with the pope in April 2004, when he seemed strong and mentally sharp. He and Father Thomas Hennessy, pastor of St. Patrick Church, Norcross, had taken a group of teens and parents on a pilgrimage, and Msgr. Mokrzycki arranged for them to sit on the front row of a papal general audience and have their picture taken with the Holy Father. At that time, he seemed strong and resilient and wasn’t shaking from Parkinson’s disease.
“We were quite surprised how well the pope looked, how strong he sounded. Among ourselves we were saying to one another we’re still going to have him quite a while because he looked well and sounded well.”
And just a month earlier in March 2004, he had been on Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue’s “ad limina” visit with the pope, where Msgr. Mokrzycki had helped to get a small group seats on the stage at an audience at St. Peter’s Square.
The pope inspired Father Ozimek through his witness and devotion. The Polish Catholic community is particularly proud of their beloved pontiff and hopes to honor him and his legacy by leading a petition drive in parishes to have an Atlanta area road named after him. “We always have to be very proud to be Catholic. He inspired me to be that as a man, as an individual. As a priest he inspired me to be a better priest, especially to have a greater devotion towards the Eucharist.”
As he eases back into the routine of parish life, Father Ozimek reflects on his amazing experience of the universal church in Rome—and would be glad he went even if he’d been unable to get access to the Vatican. “It was such an honor to me to be there and see him for the last time and just pray for my friends and family and the whole church and say the last goodbye as he was lying there in St. Peter’s Basilica. These were my emotions — sadness and joy and honor to be able to be there and really (a desire) to pray for his intentions and for the future of the church.”