By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 14, 2005
Father Theodore Book arrived outside of Vatican City at 4:30 a.m. to get in line to pay his final respects to Pope John Paul II, and he passed before the pontiff’s body at 2:30 p.m. that day, after a peaceful 10-and-a-half hour wait.
The parochial vicar at St. Catherine of Siena Church, Kennesaw, happened to be on retreat in Rome, where he had attended seminary, when the pope died, and feels blessed to have been able to say farewell to the pontiff in Italy before returning home the day of the funeral.
“Lots of people were waiting, all very prayerful. You could tell people loved him a lot. That day it was mostly Italians,” he said. “It was something to see him there. He looked so very little lying there on the pall. It was touching to see this man who did so much and was a wonderful person, a little man who looked like the rest of us who God did great things through.”
He recalled how as a seminarian his class had gone to celebrate Mass with the pope, and how he had given the pope’s secretary a chalice that his grandmother had given him for his ordination, which the pope used to celebrate their Mass. “That was quite a little kind thing he would do that was very nice.” He recalled living with the Benedictines one year in Rome and how the pope came to St. Sabina Church to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass for them, even with his physical frailty.
“It was impressive just to see for all those years while he was ill, to see his dedication and strength and how much he gave of himself doing all that.”
Father Book and other Catholics around the archdiocese reflected on the pope’s bold proclamation of the truth about the sanctity of all human life, from that of the gravely ill and unable to speak, to the incarcerated, to the newly conceived.
Father Book believes the pope’s strong defense of life was shaped by his living under Nazi occupation in Poland and then under communism. He knew “how horrible a system is when human life is nothing more than a tool or a commodity, and he knew it well, both how precious life was and how horrible a system was that oppressed human life and devalued human life. Coming from his own personal experience, he was able to speak very eloquently of the value of each human being and even people who didn’t agree with him respected him for that,” he said. “It’s easy for people today to think of human life as something that is good only as a means to an end, only when people are able to be productive in society or be happy or bring about some good, then life is worthwhile, but the pope made it very clear that every life is valuable, especially the weak and sick and unborn. I think that a lot of people loved him so much, even people who didn’t agree with him. It was his love of people that made him so respected among other people.”
Father Book was inspired by the pontiff’s love for each human person. “As a philosopher he was big on personalism, that focus on the human person, with everything he did you could tell that he had love for each human person,” he said. “He was a special man. It made me want to read more” of his writings.
Irene Miranda, AIDS minister for the Atlanta Archdiocese, appreciates the pope’s leadership for the world to treat those who are HIV positive with dignity and compassion and to lift the stigma of the disease. While some criticized the pope’s refusal to advocate condoms to prevent the disease, Miranda explained that he took a holistic approach with his prevention message in calling people to respect and protect themselves and not do anything to devalue themselves or endanger their health. His perseverance in illness was a particularly strong witness to those with AIDS.
“He showed you can still have dignity, and you can continue to do work God has called you to do even though the body may be showing the ravages of AIDS and sickness. This is a real powerful example,” especially in American society, so focused on appearances and health, she said. “Even when he had the tracheotomy and couldn’t speak, he tried. I think these are examples (of his message), not spoken but very powerful.”
Arturo Vigil, a member of Holy Cross Church, Atlanta, feels blessed to have had this man as pope. “He’s probably going to go down as one of the greatest popes we’ve ever had. He was a philosopher, had many, many talents. His love of the Lord shone in everything he said and did, his love for Mary, the rosary. It’s unreal. He was a saint,” he said. “Some criticized him for being so backwards (but) there are just some things, the truth of the faith, that are never going to change. Some people would like to make it a democratic institution but that’s not the way the Lord founded it. It’s a divine institution.”
Andrés Montaña, dean of students for boys at Pinecrest Academy, Cumming, spoke of the mysterious way this pope touched people’s hearts around the world. “I’m really sad because I love the Holy Father so much. I miss him, but at the same time I am overjoyed because I know he is resting with the Father in heaven. It’s a beautiful mystery how so many people, including me, feel so connected to the Holy Father though they have never even met him. I think last Sunday’s readings (following his death) were so appropriate, ‘Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls’ (1 Peter 1:3-9). I am so proud of Pope John Paul II for carrying the cross of Christ until the very end. He suffered so much and so well. He is an inspiration to me.”
Kelly Bowring, Ph.D., dean of spiritual mission at Southern Catholic College, scheduled to open in Dawsonville this fall, called the pontiff a true icon of Christ, whether embracing one of Bowring’s children during a private audience with him in 1999, or kissing the head of Mother Teresa, or shaking hands with Fidel Castro in communist Cuba.
“He radiated Christ! John Paul showed us the face of Christ; he spoke the words of Christ; his was the gentle touch of Christ. That is why the world, and the young people particularly, loved him. When we looked at John Paul we saw Christ,” Bowring said.
The wisdom of this Holy Father will surely guide the faithful for centuries to come, through the powerful voice of truth in his writings. Whether speaking out or writing on care for the sick or against stem cell research on embryos and war, Pope John Paul was no more controversial than Christ was, he continued. “Like Christ, John Paul was the champion of orthodoxy, which simply means that he always stood for the truth of God’s revelation, and with uncompromising conviction and love. This is precisely why he is revered today so greatly, especially by the young. They are tired of false ideologies of communism and hedonism,” he said. “They want the truth, they are searching for the light; and they were filled with joy to find it in this pope and his teachings, and especially in his example of carrying his difficult cross to victory.”
The pope understood his mission to implement the teachings of Vatican II and succeeded, particularly in the areas of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, said Bowring, who studied at the Angelicum in Rome.
Bowring explained, “While he reached, and was in great part accepted, beyond Catholic and Christian borders much farther than any of his predecessors, at the same time, no reasonable Catholic could accuse him of ignoring the non-Catholic views of non-Christian religions or of compromising the unique salvific truth of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. Just because John Paul shook hands with Castro did not mean he agreed wholeheartedly with communism. So it is with the Koran. He was willing to reach out in faith to extend a gesture of love and respect with non-believers.”
A quintessential example of that outreach was how at the height of the Cold War in 1986 Pope John Paul brought together 200 of the world’s religious leaders, from Protestant to Hindu and Buddhist, to pray for God’s help.
“When he gathered the world’s religious leaders to pray for peace, he was truly Assisi’s and the world’s new peacemaker. Unprecedented!” he said. “And again at his funeral, who else could have brought together presidents, kings and religious leaders, with billions of other people, all united in one common prayer (a Catholic Mass no doubt) except John Paul II? In his death, only John Paul could have unprecedented his own pontificate’s previous precedent.”
And while Europe is suffering from the secularist and atheist ideologies of the 20th century, anyone who thinks it has liberated itself from its Catholic foundations or that the world has detached itself from religion need only look at Rome and the effects of the Polish pope’s death, Bowring asserted. “Like David’s stone and Lech Walesa’s pen, John Paul’s death and the world’s captivated attention on him and the church at this moment, has singly opened the eyes of the whole world in unprecedented ways to the reality of God’s love and mercy, as revealed in Jesus Christ, His Catholic Church, and His pope,” he concluded. “John Paul’s death and funeral have sparked a new global revolution, the largest in history; one which his whole pontificate prepared for and he himself spoke of almost as if prophetically. John Paul often spoke of a new springtime for the church, which would be ushered in by what he called the new evangelization. I wonder if he knew that his death would cause the new evangelization to blossom full-bloom, and almost in a single day, that of April 8, 2005.”