I have a picture leaning up against my computer monitor. It's a card depticting Pope John Paul II, greeting the crowds in New York on his first visit, as pope, to the United States in 1979. In the black and white photo, he's lifted his skull cap off his head and is waving to a crowd that isn't in the picture. He looks joyful, a subtle smile on his face, yet tired, as if after a long flight. But in my imagination, and knowing what little I do about his personality, you can almost see the energy he absorbs from those unseen many.
What a contrast to the pope we have seen recently. A man frail and bent by illness, who has struggled in the past weeks as the world watched. And tonight, as he lies near death, the end growing closer with each breath he takes, I think he must still be joyful. In his room in the Vatican, I think he somehow knew that there were thousands upon thousands in St. Peter's Square, and around the globe, praying the Rosary for him, their prayers giving him the strength to hold on a little longer, to pray for us as we pray for him. For at this point, he is closer to God than we are.
Some friends of mine, who were married on New Year's Eve, went to Rome on their honeymoon. While they were there, they attended a public audience with His Holiness in their wedding attire, the tradition being that when a couple comes to the audience so dressed, the pope will individually bless their marriage, often giving them a rosary or a medal. They have pictures of themselves, kneeling before John Paul, receiving his blessing. They told me that, while he was obviously struggling and in pain, his eyes were still so vibrant and full of life; that they could tell that the pope was doing his best to carry the cross he had been given and endure those physical limitations, while still serving his people. So very few are gifted with such strength.
I wasn't quite 2 when that picture was taken in New York, and I certainly wasn't aware that there was someone called a pope at that age. But as I've grown older, I've learned to love this man, our pope, not only because he is the leader of the Catholic Church on earth, but because of his strength and perseverance, his love of the Blessed Virgin Mary, his unwillingness to conform to those would change the precepts of the Church, his love for freedom and for his defense of life in every stage. He has traveled the globe and made himself available to those who would otherwise have never seen him. He has healed rifts in politics and changed the world in so many ways. Although he is the third pope that has held the Chair of Peter in my lifetime, he is, for all intents and purposes, the only pope I have ever known.
Who will be our new pope when John Paul II is gone? We can only add to the prayers which we pray now; that not only will John Paul's passing into the arms of God be eased, but that his successor will carry on the work that he has left behind; that our new pope, and the Catholic Church as a whole, should be not afraid.