Messages from the Bishop

My First Meeting with St. John Paul II

Written by Bishop Henry on Thursday, 01 May 2014

As auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of London, I made my first ad limina visit in 1987. An ad limina visit is made every five years by diocesan bishops. It entails venerating the tombs of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, officially visiting the four major Basilicas as part of the pilgrimage experience, meeting with the various officials of the Secretary of State, the Curia and their respective Congregations, Pontifical Councils, and Tribunals.

The unquestionable highlight is, of course, meeting the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome who in this case was Pope John Paul II.

We met with the Pope on four occasions: our personal audience (Bishop Sherlock and me), the group audience (the assembly of the Bishops of Ontario), a weekday mass with the Pope in his private chapel, and finally lunch with the Pope in his private dining room.

Most of our days were tightly determined and structured before we got to Rome e.g. where we would stay, time-date-place for daily Eucharist, with whom we would meet, where, what we would like to discuss with each Congregation, who would lead the discussion from our end, etc. The only wild cards were the Curia’s agenda and the Pope’s schedule. Although we knew that the group audience would likely be the last event, we didn’t know until a day or two beforehand about the timing of the other three.

I would like to share my story about the mass with the Pope. I remember it as if it was earlier today: About mid-visit, in our temporary mailbox, at the Christian Brothers Residence where we are staying, we each receive a personally addressed sealed envelope which contains an invitation in raised gold script inviting us to concelebrate mass with his Holiness at 7:00 a.m. the following day. We are instructed to be at the Bronze Doors of the Vatican – right side Colonnade of St. Peter’s Square at 6:30 a.m. Very impressive!

We have to get organized. There are twenty of us. We are living about 45 minutes to an hour from the Vatican. Public transit doesn’t start until about 6:00 a.m. We will need several taxis to make it on time – a challenge in itself. We build in an extra cushion of at least 15 minutes. That means we leave the residence about 5:30 a.m., which in turn, means rising by 5:00 a.m. for a shower, shave, and maybe 4:45 a.m. if I want a coffee before leaving.

Being more than a bit excited, I wake up early, although the alarm was set as a backup just in case. I manage a coffee before we leave. I couldn’t help but notice that even the usual non-morning people are there, alert and talkative! By the grace of God, we even get the needed taxis and are at the bronze doors 20 minutes early.

As we enter through the bronze door, we are greeted by the Swiss Guard dressed in full colourful regalia. The first guard is standing on a raised dias, at ease, until he spots the episcopal ring, and then he snaps to attention, salutes, and pounds the bottom of the long speared pole on the dias which makes a loud echoing noise. I am fascinated by this recognition but resist the temptation to back up and make him do it all again. We present our invitation to another guard and wait for the other bishops to assemble.

We are eventually ushered up a flight of stairs, across a courtyard to the papal apartments, where we are greeted by gentlemen in brown tuxedos, get into a small elevator and are taken up to the fourth floor. Exiting the elevator, I am all eyes and trying to take in the patterned marble floors, the sculptures, all the paintings: including those on the ceilings, and the picturesque views of St. Peter’s Square from the corridor windows. We are led to the papal library. There has been a lot conversation and joking up until now but suddenly it turned deadly silent. Red vestments are already laid out for us on a large boardroom table and we vest in silence, form a process, and enter the Pope’s private chapel.

John Paul is already there at his pre-dieu with his head in his hands – I think that I can see a furrowed brow. This was definitely my lucky day, I end up in the front row, no tall bishop and his mitre to look around, and the Pope is so close I could almost reach out and touch him. I can’t believe it, I’m there with the Pope and he’s praying, and eventually, it dawns on me that I should be praying too.

Finally, he finishes his prayers before mass. Gets up, turns and greets us and proceeds to vest. Mass begins and I’m still in 7th heaven, until he gets to the Collect and says: “Let us pray.” There is a noticeable period of silence, he prays, and finally coming back to reality, I pray. This is all going by too fast!

After the readings, I sit down and prepare myself for the homily of my life. However, the Pope doesn’t preach but goes back to his chair sits down, closes his eyes and prays. I am so disappointed but finally get over it, and pray too.

This pattern seems to go on all the way through mass. Whenever there is an opportunity for silence and personal prayer, the Pope prays and so do I. I’m sure you know what’s coming. After communion, he returned to his chair, sits and prays. So do I. I’m getting into the rhythm by now.

When mass is concluded, he returned to his chair for his thanksgiving prayer. The proper etiquette is you don’t leave the chapel until the Pope does. So I sit and pray. Finally, he finishes, acknowledges our presence and we form a procession and leave the chapel.

One of the other bishops nudges me and whispers: “Cripes, I haven’t prayed so much for so long.” I said: “Yes, I know and I think that was his point. He wanted us to understand that to be a good Pope, you need a strong personal relationship with Jesus and a commitment to prayer, and if you guys are to be good bishops, so do you.” It was a classic teachable moment.

By extension, I would say if you want to be a good disciples, you too need good role models, a commitment to prayer and a personal relationship with Jesus.

 

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