Madonna House

St. John Paul II: The Father of My Priesthood

by Fr. David May

Several seminarians recently spent a week here on retreat. Three of them were to be ordained within the next week or two. They spoke about the combination of fear and joy they were experiencing, along with a great sense of expectation.

I told them that there is no time quite like this in the life of a future priest and that our own seminarian, Deacon Michael Weitl, was also on retreat at that time. (He will be ordained here on June 21.)

I told them about my own ordination retreat in 1981. It took place in a poustinia here at Madonna House, and my spiritual director visited me each day for a little conference.

During that retreat, I was asking the Lord for a word to clarify for me what the priesthood would entail for me personally. No sooner had I completed that prayer than I heard a loud knock on the door. Father Pelton entered and told me to pray “because the Pope has just been shot.”

Those words, naturally, seemed to be God’s answer to my prayer, and I have kept them in mind ever since. It said to me that some kind of total offering would be required of me. I did not, however, speculate as to what form that offering would take or about the mysterious timetables of God.

As it turned out, Pope John Paul II lived on for another 24 years, passing away after a heroic struggle with Parkinson’s disease (and other ailments) on April 2, 2005.

By then I was in my first year as director-general of priests and had been a priest for 24 years.

Six years later, in the spring of 2011, I found myself in St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome, kneeling by the tomb of Venerable John Paul II, who was about to be beatified. Then in 2014, a few weeks before he was to be canonized by Pope Francis, I was again praying there.

Both times I found myself in tears. Both times, I wasn’t expecting those tears, and I wasn’t sure why they were there.

Perhaps it had to do with this pope being the “father” of my life as a priest. He was elected when I was a seminarian, and I saw him in person for the first time in 1984, when he came to Ottawa at the end of his Canadian pilgrimage.

The reading at his Mass that day was the beatitudes, and he proclaimed, unforgettably in a booming voice: “Those who live the beatitudes are invincible!!!” That was only 3½ years after the assassination attempt that almost took his life.

I loved the courageous and joyful way he traveled around the world to proclaim the Good News. His teaching was powerful, even epoch-changing ultimately, but what won the hearts of millions was his very presence, so strong in faith and love of Christ, so unafraid of suffering.

He was plunged deeply into prayer, and this radiated from his whole being. To see or to hear Pope John Paul II was to see Jesus Christ, who, like the pope, was both greatly loved and greatly vilified during his earthly life.

But regardless of these reactions to him, in season and out, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the Gospel with his life.

His administration as pope was not perfect, and he was quite mistaken in his assessment of the moral probity and trustworthiness of at least one important leader and founder of a religious order.

That man’s actions had devastating consequences on his victims and ultimately on the whole community and on the greater Church. (The current Pope, Francis, has taken important steps to prevent such tragedies from recurring.) But no one has seriously questioned John Paul’s personal holiness and rectitude.

His teachings were complex and not easy to absorb. I used to spend time in poustinia reading his writings slowly line by line, and I never regretted that labor of love—especially of his encyclicals, his Theology of the Body, his brilliant teaching on the Gospel of Life, and his inspired understanding of the light coming from the Christian East.

The encyclical, Splendor of Truth, also thrilled me, complex as it was, because it provided such an integrated picture of Christian moral life, objective truth, conscience, and a deep life of prayer, all integrated as one whole, crowned with a reflection on martyrdom!

All of this and more shaped my mind and my heart profoundly.

It was under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II that Communism fell in Eastern Europe like a miraculous shedding of a cloak of darkness.

Moreover, the very person of this pope brought Fatima close, with its message of apocalyptic struggle, prayer, penance, and ultimate renewal.

The promise of a new Civilization of Love and a new Springtime for the Church—provided Christians turned their face resolutely towards the face of Christ—flourished under his guiding hand.

Yet, at the end of his life, he could no longer even lift that hand to bless us. This was a great suffering and torment for him that he took to the grave as part of his own priestly offering.

I suppose all of that came flooding back to me when I was kneeling by the Holy Father’s tomb those two times.

Perhaps there was in me both gratitude for the gifts I received from him, gifts that shaped my priesthood, and a desire to carry on the work faithfully. At the same time, I was acknowledging that I had also failed miserably from time to time as a priest of the John Paul II generation.

However, like him, I believe in the Divine Mercy, something Catherine Doherty and Madonna House had also taught me long ago. Maybe my soul was simply awash in gratitude, sorrow, mourning and joy all at once.

And now? Now Pope John Paul II is Saint John Paul. The title doesn’t change anything in one way, but in another way, it brings him closer to me than ever.

It’s quite something to have seen, listened to, and followed someone who actually got canonized—and in less than 10 years! Somehow it brings him closer and guarantees a sure accessibility.

Walking through my days, I feel his closeness to me, in a way that is similar and yet different from the way I feel the closeness of a beloved relative, like my grandfather.

Do any of you reading this experience something like this personal spiritual guidance from a saint or deceased saintly relative or mentor?

I think that what I have discovered is that this is a saint whom I really love. I love, too, that he stood up to the world and its false gods and false ways of thinking, yet did not despise that world.

Pope John Paul II was often accused of being an uncompromising leader who made impossible demands. Was not his teaching on sexuality and particularly his upholding of the teaching on contraception largely dismissed, even by Catholics?

This tragic rejection and misunderstanding on the part of many was based, I think, on a simple fact: Pope John Paul lived from a deep place of prayer and spiritual illumination that few of us ever reach.

But that doesn’t mean we’re not invited to enter those depths and to be bathed in the light of understanding by the Holy Spirit.

He tried to show that we are all invited to enter those depths of spiritual life from which alone the demanding teachings of the Gospels come within our grasp.

Without Me you can do nothing (John 15: 4). How apt those words are in connection with the teachings of this blessed pontiff! How well he himself knew this, experienced it, believed it!

But he also knew something that many of us have yet to discover in any truly deep way: we are never without Jesus Christ. He is with us always, till the end of time, even as he promised.

The life and death of this new saint is a sign for us from heaven of that very truth.