Pope John Paul II and Me

I originally published this blog post in 2011. Today, April 27, 2014, Pope John Paul was canonized by Pope Francis in Vatican City where an estimated crowd of 800,000 gathered. This means that I was not only snubbed by a pope, but now by a saint. I’ve seen relics of saints before, the finger and jaw bone of Saint Anthony, the hand of Saint Stephen, but before today I had never encounter a living human being who would become a saint. Today that all changed. 


I was 26 years old when I saw Pope John Paul II in Rome. I was doing a study abroad in Urbino, Italy, a beautiful renaissance hill town in the Marche region near the Adriatic coast. During the week we would work on our courses and on weekends we would take a trip to a different part of Italy. It was my first time abroad, and I had the wonderful opportunity to see a lot of Italy. I can think of no more magical experience than that summer in 1996. In many ways that experience set the agenda for my adult life, both personally and professionally. Most of this was due to a wonderful teacher I had, Federico Siniscalco (who is now a friend of mine on Facebook) and Robert Piluso.

Vatican City, as we all know, is its own country located within the Roman city limits. On the last weekend of my summer abroad study, we took a bus from Urbino to Rome. If I remember correctly, we were to spend three days in Rome. One morning during breakfast at our hotel Federico informed us that he had secured tickets to see the Pope later that day. So, most of us made the trip to Vatican City on a hot, bright day.

Outside the gates of St. Peter’s there is the usual vendors selling rosary beads, crosses and crucifixes, and countless pictures of his Holiness Pope John Paul II. St. Peter’s is an astounding piece of architectural brilliance. There is an electricity in the air that, I suspect, even non-believers would acknowledge. As you walk up to the entrance of the auditorium a squadron of Swiss Guards, dressed quite ridiculously, stand at attention. We showed our tickets and were ushered in.

The hall was quite large and rather boring in regards to its design. There was a center aisle, along with two outside aisles just like one would see in any church. What happens when you have an “audience” with the Pope is that he basically comes out and welcomes the attendees in several languages. He then raises his hands in a blessing. It was interesting to see that most attendees were holding up the goods bought before they entered for the blessing. I bought a very nice rosary that I held up to later give to a very religious aunt.

The crowd was electrified. At times I felt as if I were at a Who concert rather than a religious ceremony. The Pope was quite frail and we could see his hands shaking from the rows where we were sitting. Once he finished his blessing he got up and walked to the crowd. He first went along the front of the auditorium. When he started to come up the middle aisle people rushed to stand as close as possible to the walkway. I was lucky enough to be on the end, so I did not have to force my way through. I was, however, pushed and nearly knocked down by a pair of over-excited nuns. The Pope was slowly making his way closer to me, shaking hands and smiling. He was much shorter than I had pictured. However, there was no doubt that this small, frail man was quite powerful. You could feel the respect and energy he emitted as he walked and greeted his followers. People were shouting “Papa, Papa,” over and over and the whole thing was becoming more than a little frightening. I felt as if at any moment a riot would break out. When the Pope was two or three people away from me I held out my hand. Although I consider myself a “recovering Catholic,” I was not about to pass up the chance to touch one of the most influential and powerful men on the planet. He was holding the hand of a nun in front of me, and she refused to let go. He smiled and playfully batted her hand away.

Then it was my turn. I was shouting “Papa,” and holding out my hand to touch him. He had his hand out to me and we made eye contact. Then, just like that, he drew his hand back and turned away. I was so close. For a moment I didn’t know what happened. It gradually dawned on me that I had just been snubbed by Pope John Paul II. After we left I immediately called my mother to let her know that I had just seen Pope John Paul II quite close up, and that he snubbed me. She said, “I told you to go to church! The Pope knows!” After the phone call we went to a café and ordered bottle after bottle of wine.

Last week Pope Benedict XVI announced that John Paul II would be beatified, moving him one step closer to sainthood. Over two million people are expected to make the pilgrimage to witness this event. It didn’t take long for me to consider being snubbed by Pope John Paul II as a great opportunity to tell the story to my children and (someday) grandchildren. Now, I am rooting for John Paul II to be made a saint. How many people can say that a saint snubbed them?


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