My first demerit, going to Rome, and when I didn’t like Pope John Paul

If you have been on Facebook for even 12 seconds and are friends with even one Catholic, you would know that today is St. John Paul’s feast day. And I, like most every other human being, am pretty pumped.

To be honest I was very late on the loving-Pope-John-Paul trend. I knew nothing about him while he was alive, I don’t remember ever hearing about him, seeing a picture of him or anything until after his death. Then my school gave a crash course on how the papal elections work and I snuck out of art class to watch Pope Benedict be announced and I got my first demerit.

So hardcore. Also, what kind of Catholic school gives demerits to students who want to watch the papal election? I digress.

But even after that, I just knew JPII was the pope before Pope Benedict. It wasn’t until I moved to Lincoln, NE where I experienced the deep love people had for John Paul. I heard story after story from my peers, from adults, from priests, from nuns of how their lives were changed by him. Whether it was from World Youth Day or hearing him speak or just his efficacious way of living, people loved him.

And, to be honest, I felt like I had missed an opportunity. Like, he was dead now and I couldn’t experience what these people did. Their lives were touched profoundly and I felt like I was playing catch up. So instead of learning more about him, I just decided that he could be other people’s saint, that it was fine if he was cool and amazing and miraculous for others, but not for me (side note: this is also how I felt about Jesus at this time).

Fast forward many years and in college I went to Rome. As we strolled around St. Peter’s Basilica early that morning, I saw many of my peers congregating not in front of the Pieta or any of the other impressive pieces of art, but around a plain looking side chapel with a tomb in it.

Spoiler: it was John Paul

And as I knelt there (because everyone else was) I felt a little cynical, like, oh hey it’s you again. And I felt a little frustrated because, once again, I had JPII FOMO (fear of missing out) (or fear of having missed out, more accurately).

And I for sure cannot explain what happened next but in my angsty little heart I remembered things that led me to Rome; hearing about JPII in high school, deciding to apply for Totus Tuus and teaching all over that state, spending time in actual prayer while teaching, encountering Jesus in the Eucharist, having to explain at every parish what Totus tuus meant and who first said those words. Those experiences taught me that I did care about my faith, that I did want to be Catholic. That led me to the Newman Center at UNL, which led me to some crazy FOCUS missionaries and one specifically crazy one who fundraised my trip to Rome.

The only reason I had agreed to teach and participate in this Totus Tuus craze was because John Paul first made those words his motto. I realized that I hadn’t “missed out” on encountering JPII because he was still doing amazing things in Heaven. What a weird and wonderful faith we have that allows us to encounter and grow in relationship with people who are dead. People who have already lived and overcame the struggles that living brings. And that we can grow in relationship with the Creator of life itself? It’s unreal, but it’s also very real.

Then I started crying and took that unfocused and shaky photo.

He was a saint for me specifically and he was able to intercede for me in a unique way. This helped me to realize that Jesus was my Savior, Redeemer, Beloved, Everything and that He loved me in a unique way.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 956: The intercession of the saints. “Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness. . . . They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus . . . . So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.”

Thank you, Juan Pablo for all the good you did and the good you continue to do. You make me proud of to be Polish, to be Catholic, and to be human.