I was in high school when Pope John Paul II was elected to the pontificate. I grew up in a very nominalist Catholic family, raised by my divorced father and step-mother. I was intrigued by the papal election process, and I became captivated when JPII spoke. His smile melted me; the way he went out of his way to kiss and bless babies dissolved me. His love and courage never faltered, and his intellect dazzled me.
As I look back on my growing up years, I can trace a longing which simmered for many years but which bubbled up more palpably during JPII’s reign. I have fragments of memories when I was upset and rode my bike to the local parish, sad when the priest walked by me without asking what I might need. I have more dim memories of riding my bike to a local convent and praying in their chapel. I always felt self-conscious in church because I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know the order of the Mass and was shaky in my prayers, other than the few my grandmother taught me at home. The Church was a solid presence, but it seemed out of reach to me — an elusive mystery whose secrets were unknown.
But when JPII emerged, his work kept bursting through my ignorance. I went off to college; and, as a political science and journalism major, I read newspapers voraciously. I started seeing the threads JPII was weaving throughout the world — his impact on the worker’s Solidarity movement in Poland, his impact on felling the Iron Curtain, the emergence of democracies in Eastern Europe, and his countless outreach efforts toward the youth. The earthly impact of his messages first attracted me, but I started seeing that some invisible threads connected all these events. The assassination attempt against the Pope and his miraculous survival tugged at my heart. Throughout my youth, the messages of JPII kept breaking through my wanderings.
In graduate school, my studies in political philosophy led me to study the Fathers of the Church. My philosophy studies in Hegel and Kant led me to explore the JPII’s unique personalist approach to understanding the dignity of the human person. God was touching my intellect to discover Truth. During this time period, I paid more attention to JPII’s writings. While JPII unabashedly named the evils of our age and the problems of human sin, JPII raised our thoughts further back to the creation — the place where we knew full dignity in our full communion with the Father who walked with us in the Garden in the cool of the evening. By drawing our focus to the best in our potential, JPII tapped my idealism and inspired my aspirations.
My journey home to Rome began with meeting my husband-to-be, who was discerning a call to the Episcopal priesthood at the time. My husband’s deep faith welded into my very heart the faith-driven influences converging in my life. My husband wooed me with Catholic hymns like, “Humbly I adore thee, verity unseen…” He spoke to me of going to visit JPII in Washington DC, with a group of Catholic-leaning Episcopalians to sing hymns to the Blessed Mother under the veranda where the Pope was staying.
Marriage and three children later brought us to a foundation-shaking moment. We missed little of what the Holy Father was doing and saying; and that solid foundation stood in dramatic contrast to the ever-faltering liberalization of the Episcopal Church. Many of our friends were fleeing the Church, and some encouraged us to join the Orthodox Church. The Divine Liturgy drew us in by its reverence, just as the low, post-Vatican II Catholic liturgy left us feeling a sense of loss in reverential worship. Yet, the witness of JPII showed us that the Gospel call that “we all be one” points to unification in the descendants of Peter. We decided to swim the Tiber, and join scores of Episcopalians who have made the journey home.
As a mother, JPII taught me to pray as I work. He taught me that parents are the primary educators of their children, and we delegate this responsibility with grave trepidation. This led me on a 15 year homeschooling journey. He settled the philosophical contradictions in my education by heightening my realization that each relationship rooted in Christ remains in dialogue with the Trinity. He showed me that experience is an important element in faith formation, and reflection on each of our unique gifts and experiences extends His Story in this world. He taught me to “fear not!”
We are so blessed to live in an era of such saintly Popes — John Paul II, John XXIII, and our current Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. John Paul II’s over 25 year long pontificate marks an entire generation. I’m proud to be part of the JPII generation; and I attribute his witness to saving my life from youthful confusion and ignorance to fullness of communion in Holy Mother Church. St. John Paul II, pray for us!