Six years ago today, many of us gathered around a TV set or a computer screen, or in some cases, a radio. In some form or fashion, we were united with the throng assembled at St. Peter's Square, awaiting updates on the condition of Pope John Paul II. A small room in the fourth floor of the Apostolic Palace suddenly became the center of the universe.
And then it came. The news nobody wanted to hear, but, had expected arrived. On the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, he was gone.
The day before his funeral, I wrote this email to some friends of mine:
At this writing, a sea of humanity engulfs the Eternal City, spilling into St. Peter's Plaza and Basilica as pilgrims flock to say goodbye to His Holiness, Pope John Paul II. While many remember the Holy Father for his key role in the demise of communism, his staunch defense of the Faith and his ability to reach out to the masses, I offer a reflection on his principal role for those of us who are Roman Catholic: shepherd.
The Eucharistic Liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church offers various readings that deal with the Pope. Perhaps chief among them is St. John's Gospel account of a conversation Jesus and Peter had after Christ's resurrection. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter says yes. Each time, Jesus asks Peter to feed his sheep, tend his sheep and feed his lambs. This encapsulates the Petrine ministry of the Holy Father. As shepherd, as Christ's vicar and visible head of the church, the Pope feeds us through the words of Christ, both in scripture and in teaching and, through his ministry as priest, through the celebration of Mass. The Pope tends his sheep through his example, his defense of the Faith and with great love.
We refer to the Pope as Peter because he is the first among the prelates, just as Peter was the first among the Apostolic band. Christ gave Peter primacy over the Apostles, giving him the keys to the kingdom and the office of chief shepherd of the flock. John Paul II, as Peter's successor, shared that special inheritance and lived it to the fullest extent. As our shepherd, he led us through good and bad times. His words gave us hope. His challenges made us take serious stock of ourselves, especially when he spoke of the Gospel of Life. Many thought that the Holy Father was perhaps too rigid in his stance on issues, saying that the Church needed to change with the times. However, how quickly they forget that Christ also called Peter the "rock" on which he would build his Church. As Peter, John Paul II needed to be that rock for all of us, teaching us to hold firm to our Faith and not allow it to be changed by passing winds. Even in his final years, the frailty of the body could not keep John Paul II from continuing his work, even as he asked God that perhaps he should let his servant "go in peace." In his weakness, John Paul II taught us to be strong.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Karol Wojtyla chose the name "John Paul" for himself when he was elected Pope. While it could be argued that he wanted to continue the unfulfiled wishes of his late predecessor, John Paul, I, I offer another perspective. The Apostles John and Paul share special charisms with the Holy Father. John, the beloved apostle of Jesus, spoke about love. His whole Gospel, his epistles and his Revelation boil down to one message: God is Love. Paul, the double-edge apostolic sword, was the herald to the Gentiles, taking the Gospel to the corners of the Roman world. Combining the examples of these two great apostles, along with his solemn Petrine mission, John Paul II took the message of God's love to nearly every continent. In fact, the psalm response used in conmemorating the feast of the apostles notes: "Their message goes out to all of the earth."
Tomorrow, Rome and the Universal Church bid John Paul II farewell, consigning his body to the ground from whence he came. Let us pray, then, for our Holy Father, John Paul II, that the Lord in his great mercy and love welcome this Servant of the servants of God into the heavenly inheritance.