Today is Divine Mercy Sunday – a designation of the first Sunday after Easter by Polish-born Pope John Paul II in 2000 promoting the Divine Mercy devotions popularized by the early 20th-c. Polish seer and Saint Faustina Kowalski based on her mystical encounters with Our Lord. A bare five years later the Pope would die on the very eve of that new Feast. It is appropriate that this Feast has today, nine years further on, seen the solemn canonization of the late Holy Father as Saint John Paul the Great, Pope and Confessor. (I'm presuming that last is how he will be styled.)
Which means that I can say, “I have seen a saint” – with my own eyes. Granted, I have probably seen a great many saints in the more general sense, those who are commemorated on the Feast of All Saints, 1 November each year, but never other than once in my life have I been even remotely in the presence of one who would eventually be formally recognized as such by the Church.
And “remotely” it was indeed, almost three decades ago, on Saturday 12 September 1987, when I stood amidst a crowd of about 130,000 around a huge outdoor pavilion altar erected near the University of New Orleans' Lakefront Arena, in sweltering heat and humidity and a beating sun punctuated by rain as the Pope offered Mass. Here is the rather sketchy account from the journal I was keeping quite intermittently at the time:
[After spending Friday night at Anne's parents' home in Lafayette – we were living in El Dorado, Arkansas, during this period and had driven down along with a friend, Laura Doyle, on Thursday evening] We met the buses at Acadiana Travel at 9 am and left for New Orleans. Laura sat beside a young lady, Jackie Granger [no known relation to my wife's family], who is entering the Carmelite Monastery in Lafayette next month. We arrived in New Orleans at about 11:30. We walked 2 ½ miles from the bus to the Mass site, arriving about 12:15. We had to pass through metal detectors to get to our reserved seats, where we arrived about 1 pm. It was very hot. About 3:30 it started raining and hailing [whoa! – that I did not remember!]. The Pope arrived at 3:45 and rode through the crowds for about 20 minutes, but no one could see him for the umbrellas. About 4:15 when the Mass was to begin, the rains (miraculously) [that parenthetical assessment is in the original account] stopped and everything started. It was very moving. About 6:30, the Mass ended. We made it back to the bus by about 8 pm, but due to traffic did not get out of New Orleans until about 9 am and arrived in Lafayette about 11 pm. It was an experience I'll never forget.
I wish I had kept less of an itinerary and more of a detailed, impressionistic account of the event itself. There are many images that stick in my mind even 27 years later. Besides the heat, which doubtless depressed the crowds from the predicted 200,000-plus (and don't you know the media had a field day with that!), there was the seemingly endless walk from the bus to our seats; several false alarms that “The Pope is here!”; the onset of the rains – and hail? I remember the rain being a bit heavy when it came, but have no memory of hail!; Carmelite postulant-to-be Jackie pulling out a prayer book and finding a “Prayer Against Storms,” which seemed to work, although not immediately; straining to catch that first glimpse of the “Popemobile” as it made its way through the crowds as the rains continued – as I remember it, the rains ended just as the Pope arrived at the pavilion; the Mass itself is something of a blur, but I well remember the interminable lines to receive the Eucharist and the huge crowd singing Let There Be Peace on Earth (which song to this day takes me back across the years to that afternoon); taking away as my souvenir of the day a Papal Flag that still hangs over my desk in my office on campus; the seemingly endless walk back from our seats to the bus. And did I mention the heat? I do not remember the rains really giving any relief, but rather adding to the humidity. Nor, this being New Orleans in September, did the onset of dusk during the walk give much respite. Nevertheless, the couple of lapses into relative emotionalism in the account above, “It was very moving” and “It was an experience I'll never forget,” probably sum it up the best.
I also wish that I had a better photographic record of the day. I had borrowed my father's 35mm SLR camera in an attempt to get good pictures, and I did take an album full. Unfortunately, I messed up the settings and all of the images came out underexposed. Even with the rains, and mostly cloudy skies otherwise, I remember the day being much brighter. I have scanned and included just a couple of my pictures to give an idea of what we could see. Scanning and applying a "one touch correction" algorithm does brighten them up a bit from the old print; perhaps the problem all along was with the original prints rather than my photography...? The other pictures (including the aerial view with our approximate location marked) are swiped from a NOLA.com retrospective posted in 2011 [LINK]. Finally, for whatever reason I did not preserve any pictures I might have taken of us on that great day in New Orleans, 1987. I wish I had.
The picture that heads this post (from the slide show at NOLA.com) shows the Holy Father as I will always picture him in my memories, healthy and in the prime of his Pontificate, before the ravages of age and disease – plus a long Papal reign filled with the rigors of non-stop travels to every corner of the globe – took their toll and left him bowed in body although never in spirit. He was Pope for nearly the first two decades of my own life as a Catholic (I was received into the Church on Holy Saturday 1986). His impact not just on the Church but on the world has yet to be fully realized, but although an historians' objectivity inclined me to resist the almost immediate bestowal of the popular title, “the Great,” on him virtually immediately upon his death in 2005 (his passing is another event that I can remember exactly when and where I received the long-expected news – while driving home from a trip to south Louisiana), I am confident that time will bear it out as well-deserved. And through it all his compassion and humor made him one of the most well-beloved Pontiffs in the 2000-year history of the Church, in almost every corner of the Church and even outside it. For much of my adult life he was simply “The Pope” – although I was just shy of seventeen during the year of the three Popes 1978, not being Catholic I have absolutely no memory of Pope Paul VI, and virtually none of Pope John Paul I who reigned for barely a month. Nevertheless, it was immediately apparent that this was a new kind of Pope, balancing with near prefection tradition and progress (no mean feat as the shock waves of wide misinterpretation and misapplication of “The Spirit of Vatican II” reverberated), orthodoxy and pastoralism in the affairs of the Church, as well as willing to meet head on the challenges of a world tense with Cold War antagonism. Having no real perspective – again, for much of my adult life, and almost two-thirds of my life as a Catholic, he was simply “The Pope” – I've never given any consideration to the question of how readily I would have responded to what I consider to be God's call into the Catholic Church during the era of another Pope. Certainly Pope Paul VI did not exude the charisma of John Paul II, nor – as much as I loved him as Pope – does Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. A year is too short a time for a proper perspective on Pope Francis, no matter how great his personal qualities. Mine was, in my own mind at least, a sober, carefully reasoned, historically-based realization of the Truth of the Catholic Church, but I have to wonder if John Paul II's manifest holiness was a subliminal attraction paving my way. In any case, I imagine that, until the day I pass on and, hopefully, through the grace of God find my place among those unnumbered saints commemorated on All Saints' Day, I will continue to think first of John Paul II when I think of “The Pope.”
Saint John Paul II the Great
Pope and Confessor
Feast Day 22 October*
(The Anniversary of his Papal Inauguration in 1978)
Ora pro nobis!
+ + +
To my great astonishment and disappointment, there seem to be no Youtube postings of news footage from the Pope's visit to New Orleans (in contrast to his time in San Antonio immediately thereafter – which has literally hours of video). The closest thing I can find is this musical slide show of pictures from the trip interspersed with devotional images of Our Lady:
+ + +
* According to Wikipedia, this will be his feast day rather than the date of his death, 2 April. [LINK]