I am thankful for the many benefactors who had remembered me upon my diaconate ordination, without whose support I wouldn't have gone.
It all started as a relatively small contingent: just a dozen or so of us. Once word got out, the group just about tripled. Not many of us had been there before or knew what to expect. Well, we knew about St. Peter's. And lots, L O T S of other churches. And the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, the restaurants...as for an itinerary, however, there was nothing of the sort, as least as far as we knew. Sometimes that's the best way to go.
Not many people boarded the only plane flying to Rome that day from Philadelphia. It seemed as if we had most of it to ourselves. While we had room to stretch our legs, I wasn't very much relaxed--not for fear of flying, but rather because of excitement!
We stayed at the North American College (NAC), the residence for seminarians from American dioceses who study in one of the Pontifical Universities. Study in Rome, perhaps after ordination, was an aspiration of mine since seminary days. People used to tell me that they could see me doing that ("Aw, I bet you say that to all the seminarians!"). But with the passage of time, a clearer realization of internal and external limitations, and acceptance of God's will in the present moment, I am increasingly content with where I'm at. In fact, the will of God positively "matches" people up with precisely who and what they need. It turns out to be splendid.
We toured churches. Every day. It got a bit tiring, such that I took an afternoon off to nap. I might have had a lot of pasta that day, too. (I might have had a lot of pasta almost every day.) Even with my nap day, there simply wasn't enough time to cover everything.
Our guide for the fortnight was Fr. Frederick Miller, a former professor of Systematic Theology at St. Charles, more recently a professor at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD. At that point Father Miller was a spiritual director for the NAC. His familiarity with Romanitá enabled us to tour the Scavi, the excavations beneath St. Peter's Basilica.
He was also able to speak to now-Cardinal Dziwisz, Pope John Paul's personal secretary, who quickly and unexpectedly got us into a baciamano audience. I can best describe it as a "conveyor-belt" meeting with His Holiness, our group being one among many who were blessed to be there that day. We were instructed to be at a certain place at a certain time, which became a "Hurry Up and Wait" session. Looking back, it could have been an hour and it could have been a week...we were going to meet Pope John Paul II!
|That was no cardboard cut-out of Father Miller!|
As people sometimes do in anticipation of meeting a famous leader or celebrity, I waited my turn, thinking about what I should say to the Holy Father. As if I should have had to say anything! What can I tell him? What if he says something to me? At this point, the Pope's debilitation was visible, but he did speak to some people, and blessed others. In reality we were all blessed, and he spoke to us all without having to say a word.
After our individual meetings, the group of us gathered behind the Holy Father to sing a Latin tribute song that we learned in the seminary:
Domine, salvum fac patrem nostrum, Ioannem Paulum, et exaudi nos in die qua invocaverimus Te.
Lord, preserve our father, John Paul, and graciously hear us on the day we call upon You.
Then, off we went, to enjoy the rest of our trip and never wash our hands again.
As John Paul II was such a "mover and shaker," he gave millions of people the opportunity to meet him. He formed and inspired thousands of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. That encounter enabled us seminarians to thank him for nourishing the seeds of faith, hope, and charity in us, so that we in our turn could nourish others.
Saint John Paul II, pray for us to Christ, so that we can be people of His Word!