Forty years after the beginning of the pontificate of St. John Paul II
I was 7 and watched amazed on TV as thousands of people waved their handkerchiefs bidding farewell to Pope Paul VI at his funeral. A few days later, we had a new pope. His name was John Paul; his smile, adorable. After a few weeks, I watched astonished once more at the funeral of a pope. And like a déjà vu, a new pope walked to the balcony at St. Peter’s days later, and his name was also John Paul. This pope had penetrating yet tender eyes. It was October 16, 1978.
Two months later, he announced he would visit Mexico very soon. A special sensation floated around on January 25. It was John Paul II’s first trip, and to Mexico, the first time ever a pope would visit. I had turned 8 a few days earlier and was in second grade. I wanted to see him when he landed in Mexico City, but that happened while I was at school. I missed that famous gesture which would be the first of many the pope would repeat whenever he visited a country for the first time. With amazing humbleness, after walking down from the airplane, he knelt and kissed the ground.
After school, we followed everything on TV. Suddenly, my parents and grandparents stood up with excitement and walked out with my sisters and me. We ran to Insurgentes Avenue, one of the main in the city, and waited for the pope to pass by on his way to the apostolic nunciature, where he would stay. There were thousands of people along the street. Suddenly, everyone exploded, screaming with fervor, “¡VIVA EL PAPA!” From an uncovered bus, John Paul II blessed the crowd on each side of the street. My heart was pounding. My eyes became teary. It was a sensation hard to explain. The way he looked at me … the way he smiled … the love he radiated ... his white and pure cassock … I wanted to join the crowed and yell at him, “¡Viva el Papa!” but the lump in my throat muted my words. I had just been covered by St. Peter’s shadow. (see Acts 5:15)
To Mexico and to the pope himself, it was love at a first glance. John Paul II discovered down there his mission to travel around the world. But he never denied he had a special fondness for the land of Guadalupe. That is why he returned four more times and said on the second to last, “On this day I can say to myself, ‘You are Mexican!’” Every time he departed, we bid him farewell with the reflection of millions of mirrors shining from our rooftops.
I was pursuing my engineering degree when the Holy Father returned in 1990. I had the chance to see him on several occasions and my reaction was always like the first time: a sublime emotion, the desire to yell at him that was quenched by a lump in my throat, and that strange sensation of feeling something special coming out of John Paul II that made me feel close to God. He came back in 1999, just a few days before I got married. I saw him with my fiancée and both of us felt the same every time.
Our first son, Juan Pablo, was born in 2002. We lived in the United States by then. A few weeks later, John Paul II announced he would go to Mexico once more. Both the pope and the people in Mexico knew this would be the last and the time to say goodbye. Impossible to miss it. We flew down to Mexico with our baby so that he could be blessed by the pope he had been named after. We stood on the sidewalk for long hours, under the scorching summer sun, holding a 5-month-old baby. After several hours of waiting, our son would cry on despair — the heat, the crowd and the discomfort were too much for him. He would cry even louder every time the Popemobile approached and the crowd began to scream. But every time John Paul II passed by, baby Juan Pablo would peacefully fall asleep. He did the same each of the four times we saw the pope — St. Peter’s shadow covered our baby, calming down his crying and putting him at peace.
I saw St. John Paul II when I was a child, when I was in college, right before getting married, and as a father. I grew under his pontificate, which made a strong impression in my life. The day he died was the saddest in my whole life. But I had the chance to visit his grave and to feel how something special came out from his burial place. Something that made me tremble once more as I felt a lump in my throat — that special feeling you experience when you stand before a saint.
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Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - October 2018