It was about 32 years ago, yet in some ways feels like yesterday. Pope John Paul II was visiting New York City, and my mother and I — along with our friends and neighbors, the Maloneys — had tickets to see him at Shea Stadium. Although I was only 11 years old at the time, small details from the day are etched in my memory — the rattle of rain on the roof of the #7 train, the endless crowd of faithful New Yorkers, and the good natured elbowing Anne Maloney and I gave to each other while sharing (and battling over) a big black umbrella, our excitement almost making us forget the damp and chill.
We found our seats high in the mezzanine, my mother reminding me to say a prayer for our pastor Father Callahan in thanksgiving for those precious tickets. Although it was only the middle of the afternoon, the sky was dark and dreary, hardly a day for an outdoor Mass. Anne waited in her seat, still huddled under the umbrella, her head so completely covered to keep out the rain that I felt sure she would miss seeing the Holy Father altogether.
Fans cheer and celebrate the exploits of the “Miracle Mets,” but no moment in Shea Stadium history could rival what would happen next. Just as our pope entered the stadium, the dark clouds parted and the sun beamed its warming rays upon the people so suddenly that I half expected to hear a chorus of angels singing “Alleluia” or an impromptu peal of the bells. Instead, there came a message no less uplifting or heaven sent, a phrase that was to be the theme of our young pope’s pontificate:
“Be not afraid!”
Anne and I are two representatives of a generation particularly touched by Pope John Paul the Great. When he ascended to the papacy, we were 10 and 11 years old. By the time he left us, on April 2, 2005, Anne’s eldest daughter was 10, and mine was 11. The world loved our “Papa” and mourned his passing, but somehow I have always thought that the loss was felt even more keenly by the “John Paul II generation.” He shepherded us from childhood into adulthood with the warmth of his smile, a twinkling fatherly eye, and his strong, unwavering faith, inviting us to cross the threshold of hope by his side.
Men who follow the call to vocation sacrifice the opportunity for earthly fatherhood, yet God is not to be outdone in generosity. Never let it be said that young Father Karol Wojtyla from Poland was not a spiritual father to millions, and he shares this privilege with every priest who has ever raised a chalice, absolved a sinner, or marked the sign of the cross on the brow of the dying. We may never grasp the enormity of this form of true fatherhood until we leave this world for the next, yet somehow we always felt it during the lifetime of Servant of God John Paul II.
Toward the end of his life, we knew we would need to bid our Holy Father farewell. I remember dreading the news and feeling wrung out and hollow inside when he finally passed. Still, even in times of grief, the Lord has promised we will never be left orphans. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, the Church was given a new father and shepherd, Pope Benedict XVI. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, he also came to New York to bless us with his presence, embracing all God’s people, most especially the children of the John Paul II generation, sons and daughters who will grow up loving the Church, learning her teachings, and answering the call to vocation of the future.
You may be sure my children watched much of it, awaiting the pope’s arrival as eagerly as Anne Maloney and Alice O’Brien waited so many years ago. They did not stand in line or huddle beneath an umbrella to see our new “Papa,” but the sun shone through the darkness just the same.
(Previously published in The Long Island Catholic)
2011 Alice Gunther