|| By Edward M. Dougherty, M.M.
Few people ever get the chance to travel with a saint. I did! In September 1988 I was in the contingent of international church people and journalists that accompanied Pope John Paul II on his fourth pastoral visit to Africa.
When Pope Francis recently announced that he would canonize Pope John Paul along with Pope John XXIII on April 27, I was elated and relived my up close and personal encounter with Pope John Paul.
I can still recall the plane ride to southern Africa when we members of the pope’s entourage were given the opportunity to ask him questions. The questions came rapid-fire in many languages—French, Italian, Polish, English—and he replied in the language of each speaker. I was really impressed.
When my turn came, as a missioner I naturally asked, “Do you have a word for missionaries in Africa?” I waited anxiously for the answer. I will always remember his deep, strong voice bestowing a blessing on the missionaries in Africa and saying how he and the entire Church are grateful for the missioners’ tremendous efforts to share the Gospel. Then he paused and added how encouraged he was to see the African church becoming missionary itself.
Having served in Africa as a Maryknoll priest, I felt proud. Here was the pope affirming not only missioners’ work of evangelization but also the faith of the people in receiving it and handing it on. Throughout our visit—to Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique—I could tell this pope felt the love of the people and loved them in return.
Reserved but warm, he seemed to enjoy the lively African singing and dancing that marked every liturgy he celebrated wherever we went. In Mozambique, then embroiled in a violent civil war, the warring parties issued a ceasefire for the duration of the pope’s visit. That was miraculous. But he reminded the priests and religious in this country of their role in promoting a lasting peace. He asked them rhetorically,
“How can one give witness and preach to the people the new commandment (of love) without promoting, through paths of peace and justice, their authentic progress?” Peace did not come immediately but the pope’s presence certainly planted seeds of hope for a future free from fear and conflict.
John Paul II was pope for over 25 years and, in my opinion, succeeded in presenting the global face of the Church and, by his numerous trips to countries throughout the world, strengthening the ties of Rome with the local churches he visited.
I never, of course, had the privilege of meeting Pope John XXIII personally. I was only in the fourth grade when he became pope in 1958. I thought he was a courageous man, inspired by the Holy Spirit to bring the Church into the modern world. His convening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 had far-reaching effects on countless lives, including mine.
Like other Catholics who remember a time when the Mass was totally in Latin, I was happy to participate in the liturgy in my own language following Vatican II. As a diocesan seminarian in my native Philadelphia before transferring to Maryknoll in 1974, I experienced the influence of this future saint in “opening the windows” of the Church and urging priests and religious to leave the confines of their rectories and convents and take the Gospel into the streets. Because of this unprecedented papal exhortation, every Thursday we seminarians were required to leave our desks and go out to do field work in parishes to get hands-on preparation for our future work as priests.
A few years ago a former Maryknoll priest associate, Father Don Larmore, with whom I served in Tanzania, gave a retreat on the life and times of John XXIII. It prompted me to recall the powerful hope that John inspired as well as the welcoming and compassionate style that marked his papal leadership.
Father Larmore reminded us of how as papal nuncio in Bulgaria, the future pontiff promoted interreligious dialogue and even as pope remained a simple pastor, concerned with ordinary people’s needs and the run of the mill things of life.
John XXIII died in 1963, mourned throughout the world and remembered as “good Pope John.” He was buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Following his beatification by Pope John Paul II, in 2001 John’s body was moved from its original place to the altar of Saint Jerome, where it could be seen by all the faithful.
At that time I was serving as Procurator General for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in Rome, and I can attest that the grave of Pope John XXIII is one of the most visited sites there.
So, I am excited about the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. They inspire me in my own role as Superior General of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. They are great role models for the Church today, John XXIII for his openness and desire to make the message of Christ relevant to the modern world and John Paul II for being an ambassador of Christ to that world.
Last year at a meeting of religious superiors in Rome, I had the privilege of meeting the man who now walks in the footsteps of John XXIII and John Paul II, Pope Francis. I came home encouraged by this spiritual father, who reaches out to all. He truly continues the legacy of the two he will canonize as saints, that is, people who had a call to holiness and acted on it. May we all follow their example.
Featured Image: Pope John Paul II visited a former slave-trade depot in Senegal, 1992. (CNS/G. Giuliani, Catholic Press/Senegal)