By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 7, 2005
Church leaders across the Atlanta Archdiocese were inspired by many aspects of Pope John Paul II’s exemplary Catholic life, from his philosophical writings and pastoral gentleness, to his work for peace and travels across religious and national boundaries worldwide to spread the good news of Christ.
As the pope strove to revitalize the church and to spread the truth of the faith to Catholics and non-Catholics worldwide, Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue believes that the Holy Father truly understood what it meant to be the vicar of Christ—to be open, to listen and to evangelize.
“He really felt that this is what the successor of Peter is supposed to do, go out and evangelize. You can’t (just) talk about it, you’ve got to be there for the people and I think his own personal holiness demanded that,” he said. “He inspired so many people by his own personal holiness and his outreach to people.”
The depth and breadth of his influence is reflected in the uninterrupted secular media coverage of his life at this time, the archbishop said. “They’re just in high praise of him. You won’t find that many people receiving that kind of admiration … And I do think people are sincere.”
The first time he met with the pope in Rome after becoming bishop of Charlotte, N.C., Archbishop Donoghue said he spoke to him of ministering in this heavily Protestant and evangelical area of the South.
“He knew the term ‘Bible Belt.’ He said you have to reach out to these people, bring Christ to these people. That’s your obligation … He meant—make a sincere effort in doing that. Don’t play games with these people. Let them know you’re there for the salvation of souls and to bring the message of Christ.”
He feels the pope’s challenge pushed him to extend his pastoral reach, and in response he made it a point to meet with leaders of other denominations, developing strong relationships with a Methodist bishop, with whom he still communicates, and a Lutheran bishop, now deceased, who became a dear friend.
“The Holy Father reminded me this is an obligation to take on these kinds of things and he did it so superbly well, talking to people of different faiths or no faith. He had no problem doing that. He thought he was there to represent Christ to them and he certainly did a great job.”
In 1994 Deacon Lloyd Sutter of St. Andrew Church in Roswell was among pilgrims accompanying Archbishop Donoghue to Rome. Members of the pilgrimage, including the deacon-lawyer, shook the pope’s hand during a private audience.
Having practiced law even before the U.S. Supreme Court, the deacon was surprised to be “struck speechless” in the pope’s presence.
“He looked right through you. Here, you could hardly speak. It was an absolutely awesome experience.”
An avid student of the faith, Deacon Sutter said after retiring that year, he quit watching TV and started even more voraciously to read papal documents, including the 14 encyclicals of the pope, who was the most prolific writer in papal history.
“He’s a giant in Catholic writings and I’ve just been interested in that all my life.”
His written legacy extends from the Second Vatican Council document “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” for which he was an editor, to a just-released book entitled “Memory and Identity.”
Pope John Paul II expressed his vision for his papacy from the time the Polish cardinal was elected as pope, said Deacon Sutter, who administers the Department of Religious Education and Faith Formation.
Just after getting elected the pope went to his window and broke tradition and “said something, and his first words were ‘be not afraid.’ And then he said, as he’s said in everything he’s written, that the primary message of the Catholic Church, and by extension the Christian church, is to bring other people to Jesus Christ, to evangelize.”
“The man was absolutely fearless, but at the same time he was absolutely nonjudgmental, so he confounded both the liberals and conservatives,” Deacon Sutter said. “He was crystal clear in what the church taught, but he condemned nobody. The conservatives wanted him to excommunicate everybody, but he didn’t and the liberals wanted him to fuzz up some of his teaching and he didn’t.”
Deacon Sutter said the pope’s outreach to youth and young adults has been critical and positioned the church well as this new millennium unfolds.
“As a professor of ethics or morality (in Poland) he was teaching ethics to young adults in the early ’50s when nobody else knew what young adult ministry was,” he said.
“The most important thing he’s done for the church in the world today going forth into the future is his work with youth and World Youth Day. You have millions of people who don’t have a lot of spending cash traveling across continents to be in the presence of this guy. He has positively influenced the spirituality of these people. What he’s done with the 18-35 group is remarkable.”
Father Jose Duvan Gonzalez, director of the archdiocesan Hispanic Apostolate and a native of Colombia, loved the pope as a pastor and shepherd. Mexican immigrants have a special love of the Holy Father, he said, as the pope would say “México, siempre fiel,” or “Mexico, always faithful,” and he named Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mary’s title when she appeared to St. Juan Diego in 1534, as patroness of the Americas.
“Maria . . . is commissioned in the church like an ‘evangelizadora,’” he said. “God spoke to us through Maria on Tepeyac Hill and John Paul now says, ‘I now consecrate Latin America to Our Lady of Guadalupe.’”
The Hispanic community, which held a large celebration and printed colorful posters in 2002 celebrating his 25th anniversary as pope, is planning a Spanish memorial for Pope John Paul II.
“We lost John Paul, but we have a saint in heaven. It’s very hard for all our community, especially our Mexico community,” said Father Duvan, who will provide commentary on the funeral on CNN en Español.
“I say to them ‘do not be afraid,’ because if John Paul offers us his life, now he offers us the church as our home. And the church is the teaching mother and we have in the church the pope’s books, letters and encyclicals that provide light to following in the footsteps of Christ.”
He said the church must continue to follow the pope’s directive to celebrate unity in diversity by “attending to all immigrants from Latin America, Africa, Europe. The church is the mother who waits for them.”
The pope also said to celebrate the faith according to the faith traditions and signs found in various cultures, the priest recalled.
His faithfulness until death is a strong example for current and future priests, showing them each that “I, too, can be faithful until the end,” Father Duvan said.
Sister Mary-beth Beres, OP, president of the Atlanta Conference of Sisters and vicar of consecrated life, also is grateful for the pope’s legacy and is prayerful for the future.
“The sisters of the Atlanta Archdiocese join with the faithful of the church and many peoples of the world mourning the loss of John Paul II and celebrating his entry into new life. We join in prayer with all the faithful that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinals in the selection of the next pope,” she said. “We sisters are grateful for his commitment to life, including categorical opposition to the death penalty and opposition to modern warfare. He was tireless in his pursuit of justice for the poor and peace among nations. He has been a beacon of peace and reconciliation in a world filled with violence, oppression and self-righteousness.”
Father Gregory Hartmayer, OFM Conv., president of the archdiocesan Priests Council, particularly appreciated the Holy Father’s writings on and affirmation of the priesthood. He recalled how the pope would write an annual letter to priests on Holy Thursday—even this year—encouraging them in their vocations.
“It was such a pastoral letter to us,” he said. “He just extended himself and made himself available as a pope to people all over the world and that’s why I think he’s so well regarded as the people’s pope.”
Pope John Paul II is the only pope Father Hartmayer and many other priests around the Atlanta Archdiocese have known, and he believes that his papal spirit shines through their pastoral ministries.
“We were very much affected by his papacy. I think he is looked upon as a very gentle father to most of us in the priesthood and I think we found the pope very affirming in his writings to us and his speeches,” he continued. “He was always so pastoral in his loving example to us on how we serve people in our parishes and in this archdiocese … It’s just a legacy like no other in terms of associating and making himself available to people in giving us spiritual leadership and messages and encouragement.”
He feels blessed to have had him as his pope for over 26 years.
“Although he was strong in his convictions he was also very kind and compassionate in the ministry,” he said. “He left a legacy of conviction and fidelity and he was also a man of great reconciliation who, many times during his papacy, extended reconciliation to other religious traditions and cultures and leaders who the church may have offended through the years.”
Celeste Ganey, president of the Atlanta Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women, appreciates that women have received more positions of leadership in the church during his papacy.
“I think he’s done a wonderful job … I wholeheartedly support him,” she said, holding back tears.
“One thing for sure, he stood for what he believed in … Personally I felt like he was a member of my family … It’s so sad because I knew he was old and would eventually be dying, but I was hoping and praying we’d get a few more years out of him. We needed him to try to offset the evil in the world. I’m saying it myself, but I know all the women in the council felt the same way. He was a true leader,” she said.
She also commented on how he reached out to other faiths with humility, recalling that when she was growing up, Catholics were taught that it was a sin to participate in worship in a non-Catholic church. At the same time she liked the pope’s traditional ways.
“I like the Holy Father’s strength because it reminded me of when I was growing up and had nuns teach me. It’s like we went back to the old way of things.”
She finds comfort in prayer. “It helps things. He was a big believer in Mary and the rosary. You find you’re doing it to ease the pain, doing these things he liked doing.”
Others spoke of his devotion to Mary and his witness to the dignity of human life at all its stages.
“There is no question he has been a Marian pope. Mary has been at the very center of his pontificate. Probably through Mary’s intercession the Iron Curtain came down and Poland was created in a way we never thought possible,” said Father Anthony, OCSO, prior of the monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.
Father Thomas Francis, OCSO, predicted, “He will be canonized and he will be a doctor of the church.”
“With the prayers of Our Lady of Fatima, he was the most significant church figure for the collapse of communism,” the monk said. “I think that is why God raised that man up: the collapse of communism—it was David and Goliath.”
He was also struck by the love young people universally felt for the pope, despite his age and infirmity.
“Look at the hold he has on the hearts of youth. There was a spiritual power about the man that the youth saw,” the monk said. “It’s just hard to describe the spiritual power. They saw a Christ-like figure who loved them. He always appealed to their ideals.”
Preaching at a vigil Mass April 2 a few hours after the pope’s death, Deacon Fred Johns of St. Pius X Church in Conyers said, “He took the words of Jesus very, very seriously, the Great Commission: Go, make disciples of all men.”
As soon as word he was dying spread, “temples, mosques began to fill … testimony that this pope was truly the figurehead of Jesus in the world today,” he said. “We have been so blessed to have him as our leader, our spiritual director, for 26 years.”
The deacon said he felt a responsibility to carry on the pope’s passionate concern for the dignity of each human being.
“We have to try to see the world as John Paul saw the world. We have to try to embrace life as John Paul embraced life. The sanctity of life is something that drew much criticism toward him because of his steadfastness,” Deacon Johns said. “I know I don’t want to let him down. I want to pledge the rest of my life to that fight, ending abortion, ending euthanasia, ending capital punishment.”