Words of Saint John Paul II lit a fire in me Print
Bishop Hying's Column
Thursday, Oct. 03, 2019 -- 12:00 AM
Bishop Donald J. Hying's column

Forty years ago this week, Saint John Paul II energized and inspired our country during his epic first Pastoral Visit to the United States.

Saint Paul VI had visited New York City in 1965 during a visit to the United Nations, but that short encounter was the extent of any papal presence in this country. Arriving directly from his remarkable pilgrimage to Ireland, Saint John Paul landed in Boston on a Monday afternoon and electrified all of us.

Listening to the pope

I was 16 at the time, thinking of priesthood, struggling to discern the mystery of such a call. I was also working my first restaurant job; having graduated from washing dishes to frying chicken, I was making $2.32 an hour, which even then was a terrible wage.

On the Saturday night of the papal trip, I was scrubbing fryers at 2 a.m., listening to the radio to keep myself awake. Lo and behold, over the airwaves at that late hour came the inimitable voice of the pope, speaking to the young people of America earlier that day.

“Young people of the United States,” he declared. “God is calling you to a life of radical holiness. He is calling many of you to the priesthood or Religious Life, so if you hear that call, do not be afraid of it! Say yes to Christ. When you give your life to the Lord, He will do things through you, with you, for others that you cannot even imagine. Do not be afraid of Christ. Say yes to Him!”

Listening to those challenging and inviting words, I felt in that moment as if the pope had come out of the radio and was standing in that miserable restaurant kitchen, calling me. Calling me to the priesthood. Those few minutes were the most defining moment of my life, for I felt a definitive embrace by the Lord, that indeed priesthood was the vocation for me and that I should follow Christ without fear.

From that moment 40 years ago until now as I write these words, I have never fundamentally questioned the call that I heard through the mediation of the Holy Father so long ago.

John Paul spoke the truth

So many aspects of Saint John Paul’s teachings and pontificate still speak to me with tremendous power, because he spoke the truth from both his keen intellect and mystical spirituality. He held up the risen Christ as the meaning of history and the model of what it means to be human. In the Word made Flesh, we not only see God in His human incarnation, but we also discover who we are as beloved children of God, adopted as sons and daughters into the very life of the Trinity.

John Paul courageously defended human dignity and rights, because he profoundly understood who each person had become through the saving mystery of Christ. He often said, “Jesus Christ is the answer to our deepest questions about the meaning and mystery of our own lives.”

Saint John Paul II upheld the social implications of the Gospel. Whether it was the Duvalier regime in Haiti, the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, the Communists in Poland, or the self-absorbed complacency of the wealthier nations, this pope spoke truth to power.

He envisioned a world where there was enough justice, joy, food, medicine, and freedom for every person, including the unborn. When we live the full teachings of the Church, both in their personal and social aspects, we build a culture where every human being can flourish, realizing their identity as children of God, having what they need to live in dignity, security, and love.

He traveled the world

Saint John Paul was a philosopher, poet, athlete, author, professor, actor, priest, bishop, and pope. His love of language and esteem for every human culture, his passion to preach the Gospel, and desire to bring the Catholic Faith to all people led him to the ends of the earth on countless pilgrimages, filled with Masses, talks, speeches, and encounters with thousands of people.

In all of this, he saw and was seen by more people on this planet than anyone else in human history. It was as if he wanted to speak to every single person about the love of God for them and the tender mercy of Jesus made available through the Church and the sacraments.

Forty years ago, John Paul was still in the first year of his long pontificate. In the aging film footage of that first Pastoral Visit to the U.S., he looks so young, jumping off stages, joking with the crowd, putting in 18-hour days, singing, praying, speaking, and listening to the powerful and the ordinary across our country.

That historic journey lit a fire in me that has never gone out, but has only increased in intensity of passion and purpose with the passing of these decades. I will always be grateful that Saint John Paul traveled to our country and spoke the words of Christ, a message that forever changed the life of a teenager, up to his armpits in grease, scrubbing out fryers in the wee hours of the morning.

Ocean of light

That same year of 1979, John Paul had visited Mexico in January. At the end of the trip, a million people came to the airport in Mexico City to see him off.

After the plane took off and began its journey back to Rome, this immense throng pulled out mirrors which each one had brought and held them up to the radiant sun. When the pope looked down from the plane, all he saw was this ocean of light! His eyes filled with tears.

What a great image for the Christian life! When we hold the mirror of our lives up to the Son, we refract the radiant love and mercy of Christ to the world. This ocean of light. This fathomless abyss. This Sacred Heart of Jesus. Saint John Paul, pray for us!