Saturday, 26 April 2014

Third Class Relic

So Popes John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are now saints. This doesn’t worry me the way it worries some people. I study history, and I know very well that a decree of sanctity is not a declaration that absolutely everything an individual said or did was holy or good. In the Patristic period, you need only look at St Jerome or St Cyril of Alexandria to understand that many saints have had flaws, perhaps serious flaws. To my mind that is encouraging; in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, you can read that the infant St Nicholas was accustomed to refusing his mother’s milk on fast days. That, with all due reverence to St Nicholas, is no use to me. If perfect behaviour from infancy is necessary for me to become a saint, then it is all over with me, because even now I remain deeply flawed, as all my friends will cheerfully confirm. The Church is simply saying that these two men, Pope John and Pope John Paul are in heaven and can intercede for us. I’m fine with that. I don’t need to accept that everything they were, did and said is now part of the extraordinary magisterium.

Pope John was the Pope when I was born; I learnt a real reverence for him from his Journal of a Soul, and I have no difficulty at all in recognising his sanctity. I give no credence whatever to certain accusations of Freemasonry and all that stuff. As regarding his liturgical preferences; well, he reversed some of Pope Pius XII's changes, and published on his own authority Veterum Sapientia, confirming the study and use of Latin in the Western Rites as mandatory.

I have a more nuanced reverence for Pope John Paul. I’m not going to go into it here; you can read about it in abundance on the internet. But I will never forget my own personal encounter with him. During Lent 1990 I had been ordained about six months, and was in Rome for a pilgrimage of thanksgiving. A priest of my diocese who worked then in the Secretariat of State had obtained for me a pass to concelebrate Mass with Pope John Paul in his private chapel at his early morning celebration. Directed by Mgr Dziwisz, and vested in alb and purple stoles, we were ushered in to the papal chapel where the Holy Father was already seated at his chair and prie dieu in prayer. All was in deep silence. It really was rather uncanny; we sat with him as he prayed, but his prayer wasn’t as we prayed; he would, alarmingly, groan aloud and writhe in his chair, and I was rather concerned for him.

Finally he came around, and in front of us vested for Mass, which was celebrated in Italian. 

After Mass, we concelebrants and other guests were herded politely into a sort of receiving line. The Holy Father went to each of us, gave us a rosary, and said a few words. When he came to me, I told him in my halting Italian that I was newly ordained; he put his arm around me and hugged me. Yes, he did! And then he said something to me; I told myself right then that I must remember those words for the rest of my life. I promptly forgot them, and cannot remember them since.

What sticks in my mind? How short he was! He is always in the foreground of photographs, so he looks bigger than he actually was. In fact, he was much shorter than me, and I am only of average height. Second; the collar of his cassock was not very clean; clearly a white cassock is harder to keep clean than a black one.

But I will never forget that encounter. His presence was extraordinary.

Leaving the Apostolic Palace by the St Anne Gate, I encountered a slight figure in a black cassock crossing the piazza towards St Peter’s Square. It was Cardinal Ratzinger, heading off for his daily work at the CDF. I smiled at him, and he stopped. We tried languages; my German wasn’t adequate, neither then was his English. So we spoke in Italian: I simply thanked him for all his work, and said what it meant to me as a newly ordained priest. He beamed back at me, and then went off to work. I date my reverence for that man from that day when he spoke to a simple newly-ordained priest with infinite kindness.

So, I have touched a saint. That makes me a third class relic, and you may venerate me.

Form a line.


Fr Paul said...

Great post, father. JP II tweaked my ear lobe when I was a seminarian. Honestly. Indulgence of seven years and seven quarantines to those who kiss it devoutly and press a tenner into my hands.

Maureen said...

"My" Pope was Pius X11; I don't suppose there's much chance of a canonisation for him, sadly. I remember meeting him as a seven-year-old,and was very impressed when he blessed my Jewish mother.

ALDU said...

I also met St John Paul, at a pro-life conference in Rome. The Pope came briefly to the conference and I was one of the lucky ones put in the front row to shake his hand. I tried desperately to think of something sensible to say but could only gibber; he was polite, shook my hand and passed on.

More important, some years later shortly before his death my wife and I took our (then) 6 and 8 year old grandchildren to see him at an audience in Rome. These two girls now live in California but we have just skyped them to remind them that they have seen in the flesh and been in the same room as a Saint. They were just leaving to go to Mass so may get some Brownie points (and perhaps some extra blessing).

Pelerin said...

Thank you Father for sharing these memories with your readers. What a privilege to have concelebrated Mass with a future Saint and so early in your Priesthood.

You may be interested to know that on the French Catholic tv channel (available on the internet) kto tomorrow there is a film about the life of Saint John-Paul - 20.38 - 22.22 French time (19.38 - 21.22 here.) I presume it is the same one I saw part of last week - an Italian film dubbed in French but may be wrong.

Supertradmum said...

I touched John Paul II as well on Epiphany 1986 at the Gesu. I guess we all relics of some sort.

GOR said...

Good memories, Father!

As to the ‘relic’ part, it reminds me of a story in one of the old books on religious formation. There was an Abbess in medieval France who - conscious of her elevated status - required all those meeting her to genuflect to her presence.

This went on for some time until the local clergy got fed up with it and sought a ruling from the bishop. The bishop (most likely with tongue firmly in cheek), replied: “One need not genuflect, as if to the Eucharist - but rather bow, as if to a relic!”

Accordingly, a profound bow….:)

Pelerin said...

The film on kto tonight was only the first part. The second part is on Wednesday at 19.40 English time and also at 17.10 English time on Thursday. I found it extremely moving especially the reconstruction of the attempted assassination in St Peter's Square.

My memories of Saint John-Paul are of his visit to Britain and watching his arrival at Gatwick on television with my two sons. (I remember they were told that they could all come to school later that day so that they could watch the arrival at home)

Then there was the wonderful Papal Mass held in the old Wembley Stadium and my delight at having drawn one of the tickets alotted to my parish. The atmosphere was electric when after several hours sitting there the papal helicopter was spotted overhead.

I also remember coming away from the stadium hearing one policeman say to another 'This must be the first time on duty here when we havn't had to deal with any trouble!'

gemoftheocean said...

Hey, I hugged you in San Diego, IIRC Does that make me a 4th class relic? :-D [What was that old song about "I danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales." I feel a bit like that.] Sorry I'm only just catching up with your postings.