Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Peachtree City

From Sharing Chocolates To Final Goodbye, Parishioner Recalls Her Spiritual Shepherd

Published April 21, 2005

Marta McGlade feels like she’s mourning the death of her own father with the passing of Pope John Paul II and cherishes the memories she has of visiting with him while working for four years in Rome.

She traveled back to Rome almost yearly to attend papal audiences, received an apostolic blessing for her marriage, and took her family to meet him during Holy Week in 2003.

Now the director of religious education for Hispanics at Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, she worked at the Vatican as a linguist for the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Rome and on various Vatican projects from 1980-84 and was able to regularly attend papal audiences and meet with her beloved spiritual leader some 40 times. She was not intimidated but always in spiritual awe of the holiness of her selfless shepherd—who had both a sharp memory and great sense of humor.

“I truly feel as if I am losing a biological father, but I am also losing someone that taught me to love the Catholic Church far beyond the Catholic teachings I grew up with. He instilled in me a burning desire to evangelize, to be there for the less privileged, and also to rekindle my devotion to Mary,” she said. “My last trip before I moved from Rome was to Fatima, and I can’t even begin to tell you what an experience and a blessing it was for me. He was also an example to me about speaking out, and good or bad, that is something I do without thinking twice about it.”

The New York native, who speaks out in Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian, had been working in the office of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Brussels, Belgium. The first time she met the pope was in December 1978, two months after he was elected. She despaired that her suitcase had mistakenly gone to Switzerland and she had nothing to wear for the 8 p.m. meeting on the renewal in a room off of Clementine Hall in the pope’s private apartment. But it arrived by 5 p.m. and, after turning on the bathroom hot water full blast to get the wrinkles out of her outfit, dressed in a black dress and mantilla. She presented the pope with fine Belgium chocolates. He declared “it’s agape time,” or “time to share,” and opened the box and popped one in her mouth.

“Here I am standing in front of a man I dreamt about meeting with a big chunk of chocolate in my mouth.”

The five-foot-tall interpreter tried to curtsy and kiss his ring, customary for greeting a pope, but “he threw protocol out the window.”

“He picked me up and didn’t let me do it. He picked me up and kissed me on top of my head and held me up. I felt like I was a little girl in the arms of her father,” she said. “He always brought out a childlike feeling in me.”

She moved to Rome when the office of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal relocated there, but didn’t like living in the capital of Christendom and was overwhelmed by the bureaucracy. But the pope was her inspiration to carry on.

After moving to Rome, she attended a birthday party in 1981 for him, and she and two others brought him the cake in a Vatican courtyard.

“He smeared frosting on all of our faces.”

Then she was interpreting at a breakfast with the pope where she was in such awe that she couldn’t eat. The pope told her to stay after and eat something.

“I was in such awe of this man. I felt that he emanated holiness. He could disarm anyone by his words. He could disarm anyone by his gestures. He was able to disarm me by making me feel like a little child,” she recalled, pausing to hold back tears. “He was so concerned about everybody’s needs. He had meetings with people for breakfast, lunch and dinner and that’s not talking about the rest of the day. This man had no privacy whatsoever,” she said. “He worked incessantly for the good of the people. He was never afraid to say what he thought. There was this joy. The minute you were in his presence it was Christ-like, like the sun would come out. Intimidation is something you would never feel” unless one is not a believer in God.

She took her mom to meet him at his summer house, Castel Gandolfo, where he revealed his deep compassion.

“He looked to her and said, ‘You poor woman. You have yourself a handful with this girl!’”

She would sometimes see celebrities receive the pope and recalled how Mary Tyler Moore met him. “She had a beautiful, wide-brimmed hat that was shaking, and she was a star. She was so nervous that she couldn’t contain herself.”

She said there was only a cross in his chapel but not a crucifix, and that when the artist was asked why there was no Christ with a crown of thorns the reply was that that is worn by the successor to St. Peter.

McGlade said that her former boss, Father Tom Forrest, then director of the international renewal movement, had written a series of prayers and activities centered on the new millennium entitled “Evangelization 2000” and showed the idea to the Holy Father, who said he was very interested. Her boss “waited and waited and waited” but never heard from him, and then left for Brussels. She was with her sister and two friends at a Mass when the pope and his personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, approached her and asked her to tell her boss to meet them tomorrow for dinner at 8 p.m. She told her boss who said, “‘I’ll take the first flight out of here!’ They had dinner the next day, and that program took off like you’d never believe. And to this day that project has taken off around the world, called Evangelization 2000.”

When the pope, shortly before his death, was reported to have uttered, “I have looked for you, and now you come to me and I thank you,” and thousands were praying for him at St. Peter’s Square, it brought to mind for McGlade when she was assisting the Vatican Television Center during the first World Youth Day with John Paul II and was on the roof of the colonnade. A young man broke loose from the barricade and ran to the pope. In a matter of seconds, security apprehended the young man, but John Paul II told them to leave him alone. The boy, about 16, proceeded to lay his head on the chest of the pope, and the pope caressed his head and kissed him. She remembers “bawling in seeing such a tender sight.”

“When that boy put his head on the Holy Father’s chest, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the whole place.”

McGlade moved back to the United States in 1984 and didn’t see the pope in person for 17 years, although about once a year she would accept an interpreting project for the Vatican and see him speak at general papal audiences in Rome. But when she married, to her surprise and delight, he sent her an apostolic blessing for her wedding. The pope has always been part of her family, and she would read on the Internet the text of his talks to general audiences in Rome.

In 2002 her family was given a gift of five airplane buddy passes and felt they should make a pilgrimage. She wrote Archbishop Dziwisz and decided that if she received a response within two months, they were meant to go to Rome. Initially he said the pope would be on retreat, but then the archbishop wrote again two weeks later and said that there was a mix up and his retreat was a month later. During their trip, up until the last day, her husband and children had not had an opportunity to meet the pope directly. However, as they were packing to go home, she received a call from a Vatican switchboard nun, who said the pope would receive them at 10:30 a.m. the next day and to come to the bronze door. They were amazed since the Vatican was engaging in discussions on the pending war in Iraq.

“I don’t need to tell you, of course, my family did not fly out,” she said.

They made their way up the wide marble stairs of the simple papal apartment and into the library with glass cases of books—McGlade bringing prayer petitions from Holy Trinity catechists. Archbishop Dziwisz and the pope both recognized her and the family got on their knees. She found the Holy Father lucid.

“Even though he had two hearing aids and was sitting down—he never received people sitting down. When I’d say something about my husband, he’d be looking directly to my husband. This man was clear as a bell. It was kind of a miracle he received us as a family. A few days prior he had met with Tony Blair and Tariq Aziz,” she recalled. “He asked me how my ex-boss was doing. He remembered who I was. It had been 17 years, and he remembered me.”

She remembered how years earlier the vicar of Christ had done her a threefold favor when he introduced her to Mother Teresa, to whom she revealed that doctors had told her she couldn’t have children because of problems with her uterus. Mother Teresa prayed over her.

During this audience with her family in Rome, she told the pope in Italian how Mother Teresa had prayed over her and how she went on to become pregnant on her first wedding anniversary and eventually to have her third child at age 40.

“I told him how I sent the message to Mother Teresa and asked her to not pray for me anymore, and he laughed.”

The pope has had a profound effect on her children’s spirituality as well. Her son Brian had bought the Holy Father a zucchetto hat for the visit, and when he offered it to the pope, he put it on his head and gave the boy his own hat.

“My son’s eyes were popping out of his head. Pictures of each child were taken individually with the Holy Father.” Brian was then 14 and very nervous in the “amazing and intense” encounter.

“He’s probably like the most important person I’ll ever meet in my entire life,” Brian said. “His faith really inspired me because he wasn’t in very good condition even then but still had good faith, and he had a lot of courage.”

“I’m just trying to remember all the things he did for our church. He really made a big impact on even people who aren’t Catholic. For Catholics, he really brought the church together and helped destroy communism.”

McGlade recalled their final goodbye with the pope, who had stroked her face and made the sign of the cross. “When we left the audience, the five of us, we just held each other and we all cried.”

She went back in Holy Week 2004 and heard him speak, finding he “looked great,” and was joyful.

McGlade knows she is eternally blessed to have known the priest from Krakow. The night before the pope’s death was one of the longest of her life, as she said farewell to the good shepherd who gave her courage to speak her mind and to evangelize.

“Nobody has ever lived who is so Spirit-filled as the pope … There are so many examples of how he fulfilled the Second Vatican Council,” she said. “He embraced me so many times. He would kiss the top of my forehead. He held my hand. I felt so blessed, so honored, so privileged. He was so fully human—his sense of humor, his sense of humanity, his sense of humility. He was just a beautiful man.”