Do you feel like there is a saint in the Church who just “gets” you? Maybe it’s your confirmation saint or a saint you discovered while going through a particular trial or a saint you read about on the internet. Maybe, that saint found you.
Meeting the Pope
About a month ago I hung this piece of artwork in the living room of my newly-purchased home.
Purchased over 15 years ago as I trekked my way through Toronto, Ontario on my very first excursion to World Youth Day (WYD), it is a simple image of the man I was going to see: Pope John Paul II. He was coming to meet us, the young Catholics of the world.
I was there. And I was ready.
That is to say, I thought I was ready. My wide-eyed college-aged self had no grasp of the pivotal role those days would play in my life as a fledgling young adult in the Church. I didn’t quite know why I was drawn to this dear faithful man. Maybe it was knowing tidbits of his story and struggle under Communism and Nazism in his home country of Poland. Maybe it was his passion for theater and the outdoors and so many other beautiful things in life.
Most of all, it was his enthusiasm for Jesus Christ. He had a joy and a passion for Christianity that was so authentic and attractive. He had a joy that I craved in my life. And I wanted to know why he had it.
A Discovery of Hope
One early Sunday morning in Downsview Park, Toronto, I sat in the pouring rain and braved the driving wind alongside close to a million other Catholic youth, waiting for the Holy Father to arrive for Mass. I was very wet, very cold, and, to be completely honest, a bit miserable.
But in a moment of sheer beauty, the rain ceased and the sun broke through the clouds just as the Holy Father arrived and began Mass. My young, tender, Catholic heart was in awe as he preached a homily that felt like it was written just for me:
You are young, and the Pope is old, 82 or 83 years of life is not the same as 22 or 23. But the Pope still fully identifies with your hopes and aspirations. Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal…Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.
Photo Credit: Toronto Star
Those few days in Toronto, including that ever-memorable Sunday in the rain, changed me. They set the stage for every good and hard and beautiful moment in my life over the past decade and a half: cross-country moves, new jobs, and new friendships. They’ve sustained my during doubts about Christianity and the deaths of loved-ones; through disappointments, upsets, and personal and professional struggles. Each event was a return, in a manner of speaking, to that moment of communion with the Holy Father.
Three years after that World Youth Day experience, I had graduated from college and moved to Washington, D.C. One rainy April evening, I was hurriedly getting ready to attend a concert at the Kennedy Center with some friends from church when we heard that John Paul II had died. How beautiful and fitting that the performance we were scheduled to see was Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Together, in a crowded concert hall among both believers and non-believers, we quietly prayed for his entrance into heaven.
Be Not Afraid!
Two years later, I was enrolled at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family (a school that JPII himself founded) studying marriage, family, and bioethics. Two years after that, I taught at his namesake high school, Pope John Paul the Great. And in that time, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the same disease that was JPII’s heavy cross for over 10 years.
All the while I discovered that the spirit of this gentle saint was with me during those hardships and transitions. I took comfort in the knowledge of his love for young people, in his exhortation throughout his papacy to “Be not afraid,” and the confidence that if we move through life clinging to the cross of Christ, we can know with certainty that we will never be left alone.
That little pencil sketch that I bought for $10 at WYD also moved with me – through four different homes in D.C. and two different homes in Minnesota before it recently landed in my living room in Minneapolis.
Fifteen years later it speaks the same message to me: “Be not afraid, Karen.”
Be not afraid.
The whole of human existence boils down to those four words of Christ. It is at once that simple and that challenging. There is nothing, nothing that cannot be endured with the love of Jesus.
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Many details from those days in Toronto have faded from my memory. But those three words, spoken in a gentle Polish accent, have remained. As we prepare for the upcoming feast of Pope St. John Paul the Great, I pray that they will remain with me, and with you, to the end of our days.
Have you ever attended a World Youth Day? Do you have your own stories about Pope St. John Paul II’s influence in your life? Please share them with us in the comments!
Karen Schultz hails from the Land of 10,000 lakes, where she is often found in or near one of them. As a doula, lactation educator, and FertilityCare Practitioner, she finds joy in helping women to embrace the gift of their bodies. Downtime is found in quiet adoration chapels, farmers markets and gardens, listening to bluegrass music, and embracing the diversity of Minnesota’s seasons. You can find out more about her here.