INSPIRING and lovable John Paul II the Great, who will be canonized in Rome with another great pope, John the 23rd, next Sunday, is well-known even to non-Catholics.
Avid fans saw TV documentaries, read all kinds of publications about him and his beatification on May 1, 2011. And throughout his almost 27-year pontificate, his words and actions were given extensive coverage by global media.
In the Philippines, five million young people, mainly Filipinos, plus visitors from all over the globe, saw him at the Luneta Park on World Youth Day in 1995.
Here I will record some facts about him that may not find space in the formal presentation of his life next week to be given to Pope Francis by the Postulator of the Cause of John Paul II’s canonization, Monsignor Slawomir Oder. He gave an interview last week to Zenit News Agency.
Zenit asked, “Everything has been said, everything has been written about John Paul II. But has the last word really been said about this ‘giant of the faith”?
Monsignor Oder’s reply, “John Paul II himself suggested the key of his knowledge. ‘So many seek to know me, looking at me from outside, but I can only be known from within, that is, from the heart.’ Surely the processes of beatification first, and of canonization after, have made it possible to get closer to this person’s heart. Every experience and testimony was a piece that made up the mosaic of the extraordinary figure of this Pontiff.
No doubt, however, to come to the heart of a person like Wojtyla remains a mystery. We can say that in the heart of this Pope there was certainly the love of God and of brothers, a love that was always becoming, which was never an event accomplished in life.”
Asked what new, or at least little known thing, Mons. Oder had discovered about Karol Wojtyla in his research, Mons. Oder tells us of John Paul’s relation with Padre Pio, the Saint of Pietrelcina.
Blessed John Paul met often with and maintained a letter-writing relationship with Saint Padre Pio. In some letters John Paul asked Padro Pio for prayers for a friend and for the healing of some faithful. He asked for prayers for himself when he was still in Krakow.
“We discovered much on the spirituality of John Paul II. More than anything it was a confirmation of what was already perceptible, visible, of his relationship with God. He had a profound relationship with the living Christ, especially in the Eucharist, from which flowed all that we faithful saw in him as fruit of extraordinary charity, apostolic zeal, passion for the Church, love of the Mystical Body. This is the secret of John Paul II’s sanctity,” said Mons. Oder.
The spiritual and mystical aspects
“So, beyond the great trips and addresses,” Zenit asked is the spiritual aspect the heart of John Paul II’s pontificate?”
Monsignor Oder replied, “Absolutely. And there is a very touching episode that identifies it very well. At the end of one of his last apostolic journeys, the sick Pope was led to his bedroom by his collaborators. The next morning, they themselves found his bed intact, because John Paul II had spent the whole night in prayer, kneeling on the ground. For him, to be recollected in prayer was fundamental, so much so that in the last months of his life, he asked to have a space in his bedroom for the Most Blessed Sacrament. His relationship with the Lord was truly extraordinary.”
Mons. Oder also said, “We investigated Wojtyla’s extremely profound relationship with Our Lady. A relationship that people outside sometimes did not understand and which seemed surprising. Sometimes during the Marian prayer the Pope seemed rapt in ecstasy, alienated from the surrounding context, be it while strolling or during a meeting. He lived a most personal relationship with the Virgin.”
“Therefore, there is also a mystical aspect in John Paul II?” Zenit asked.
Monsignor Oder replied, “Decidedly yes. I cannot confirm visions, elevations or allocutions, as those with which the mystical life is often identified, but with John Paul II the aspect of a profound and authentic mysticism was present and was manifested in his being in the presence of God. A true mystic is, in fact, one who has the awareness of being in the presence of God, and lives everything from his profound encounter with the Lord.”
Memories of the Prelate of Opus Dei
In April 2011, a few days before the beatification of John Paul II on May 1, Studi Cattolici (Catholic Studies), an Italian journal devoted to philosophy, theology and policy issues, published an interview (by Michael Dolz) with the Most Rev. Javier Echevarria, Prelate of Opus Dei.
At that time, Fr. Javier Echevarria, along with another Opus Dei priest, Don Joaquin Alonso, was the immediate assistants of the then Prelate of Opus Dei, Blessed Alvaro del Portllo, who became close to Blessed John Paul II and whose beatification on September 27 this year in Madrid HAS been announced. Fr. Javier Echevarria had been with Don Alvaro in most of the latter’s meetings with Blessed John Paul II. One half of this interview is not in this account.
Studi Cattolici (SC): What is your most vivid memory of John Paul II?
Javier Echevarria: John Paul II frequently insisted that each man and woman finds their full perfection in self-giving, in dedicating themselves to God and to others. And he himself gave his life to God and the Church with a constant generosity and self-sacrifice.
The difference between the Pope so filled with physical strength who took the helm of the Church in 1978, and John Paul II in his final years, bent beneath the weight of fatigue and illness, is a sign not merely of the passage of time, but also of the full measure of his self-giving.
I once accompanied Bishop Alvaro del Portillo to the pontifical apartment at a rather late hour of the evening. While we were awaiting the Pope’s arrival, we heard some steps approaching through a corridor that sounded like someone dragging his feet. It was the Holy Father, very fatigued. Don Alvaro exclaimed: “Holy Father, how tired you are!” The Pope looked at him and, with a firm and friendly voice, replied: “If I were not tired at this hour of the day, it would be a sign that I hadn’t fulfilled my duty.”
SC: Although impossible to sum up briefly, what has John Paul II left to the Church?
Javier Echevarria: He has left us a marvelous treasure of doctrine and his example of pastoral charity. What I would highlight in his pontificate is the impulse he gave to a new evangelization through ordinary life, through people actively present in all fields of human endeavor, with conduct consistent with their faith.
Perhaps that was why he understood Opus Dei so well, whose spirit is sanctification and apostolate in ordinary life.
I want to make clear that the veneration and gratitude of the faithful of Opus Dei extends to all the Popes, for the work they have carried out for the benefit of the universal Church and because all of them, from Pius XII until today, have been providential for the development of the apostolates of Opus Dei. With John Paul II we have a special debt of gratitude, because it was during his pontificate that certain events of special importance for the history of the Work took place. These include the establishment of this part of the Church as a personal prelature, the beatification and canonization of St. Josemaria, and the creation of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.
Certainly the Pope saw in the Work an effective instrument for evangelization through ordinary life. But, at the same time, I would say that he had no special predilection for Opus Dei. John Paul II was truly the Pope of everyone, a Father sensitive to all the charisms that the Holy Spirit brings forth. I think that, with him, millions of people have felt themselves to be “favorite sons and daughters.” And the faithful of Opus Dei have also felt this, with daily joy and thanksgiving.
SC: Did John Paul II know Opus Dei before becoming Pope?
Javier Echevarria: During the Second Vatican Council he was introduced, in the Council Hall, to Don Alvaro del Portillo. But there were no more contacts until 1971, when the young Cardinal from Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, during a synod of bishops in Rome, attended a conference organized by CRIS, the Centro Romano d’Incontri Sacerdotali, with the assistance of some priests of Opus Dei. On that occasion he was asked to give an interview about the priesthood for a publication of CRIS, since people were interested in hearing the voice of a bishop who was suffering under the Communist tyranny. He wrote down the questions and a few weeks later sent thirty-one hand-written pages, in Polish. At the beginning of each page—the paper was of very poor quality—he had written an aspiration, Totus Tuus, and some verses taken from the sequence of the Holy Spirit: Veni Sancte Spiritus… Dulce refrigerium… In labore requies… O lux beatissima… Reple cordis intima…
In 1974 the CRIS invited him to give one of the conferences in a series entitled The Ennobling of Man and Christian Wisdom. The topic dealt with by Cardinal Wojtyla was Evangelization and the Inner Man. It was a lecture of great depth, and contained a reference at the end to an expression of Msgr. Escrivá de Balaguer on how to imbue the world with Christ’s peace: “sanctify work, sanctify oneself in work, and sanctify others through work.” The text was later published in a book together with other interventions of his. When he became Pope, John Paul II would sometimes give copies of this book to people who visited him.
Four years later, Cardinal Wojtyla came to Villa Tevere, the central headquarters of Opus Dei [in Rome], to have lunch with Don Alvaro. It was a very friendly meal. Afterwards, when we went to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, the Cardinal knelt on a wooden kneeler that is conserved there as a relic because it was used by Pius VII and by St. Pius X.
And also by St. Josemaria, to whom some relatives of St. Pius X had given the kneeler as a gift. When Don Alvaro mentioned this to him, Cardinal Wojtyla immediately got off the kneeler and knelt on the floor after having kissed the relic. It was a spontaneous gesture of humility which I have never forgotten.
He had great affection for Don Alvaro, especially after his election to the Chair of Peter. Holy people understand each other very well.
SC: Could you tell us any memories of your first meetings with the new Pope?
Javier Echevarria: The first meeting took place unexpectedly on the day following the election, on October 17, 1978. Bishop Andrea Deskur, a Polish bishop who was then President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and who was a good friend of Don Alvaro, and an even closer friend of Karol Wojtyla since his youth, had been hospitalized at the Gemelli Polyclinic as the result of a stroke suffered a few days before.
The day of the Pope’s election, Don Alvaro called him by telephone. He didn’t want to give him the good news directly, so as not to provoke any possibly dangerous emotion. He limited himself to asking him: “Andrea, do you know who has been elected Pope?” Deskur responded: “They couldn’t have made a better choice.” And he added: “Tomorrow I will see him.” Don Alvaro thought the patient must be a bit delirious: how could the newly-elected Pope leave the Vatican?
The next day Don Alvaro went to visit his friend. I went with him. And we were very surprised, on leaving the sick person’s room, to be told that we had to wait in a corner with some other people, because the Pope had just arrived and the exit from the floor had been blocked. It was even a greater surprise when John Paul II came up to Don Alvaro and gave him a big hug. Don Alvaro was filially moved, and on kissing the ring of the new Pontiff, he saw that he held a rosary in his hand.
Those days at the beginning of the new pontificate were very intense. We were able to see the Pope with a frequency we would not have imagined possible. For example, Don Alvaro made a visit to the Shrine of La Mentorella, close to Rome, to entrust the new Pope to our Lady’s intercession. And while there, leaning on the hood of the car, he wrote a post card to John Paul II in which he expressed his desire to assist him with his prayer. He placed at his disposal the more than sixty thousand Masses that were offered by the faithful of Opus Dei each day for the intentions of the head of the Work; it was, he said, the greatest support he could give him. A few days later he received a telephone call from the Pope himself. He wanted to thank him for that gesture, and by the tone of his voice one could sense his deep gratitude for the treasure that had been placed in his hands, a reflection of the Pontiff’s great love for the Eucharist.
On October 28, John Paul II received him for the first time in an informal audience. Don Joaquin Alonso and myself were also present, and we could see how the Pope listened with great attention and affection to what Don Alvaro was telling him. I recall that he said confidently, striking the table with an affectionate thump of his fist, that the Church would overcome all her difficulties with the help of our Lady, the first opus Dei, the most important work of God. Don Alvaro said that he too fully shared that hope. Also on that occasion, Don Alvaro told him that because of the Sede Vacante caused by the unexpected death of John Paul I, he had not been able to receive the letter which the new Pontiff, the previous Patriarch of Venice, had wanted to send for the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of Opus Dei. Msgr. del Portillo added that he had understood very well that Opus Dei was not, in fact, a secular institute and that he would have to find the proper juridical solution. Referring to that letter, John Paul II said: “La facciamo!” We will do it!.
These “unprogrammed” meetings seem very characteristic of John Paul II who, especially at the beginning, surprised everyone with his direct way of relating to people.
SC: But were there also official audiences?
Javier Echevarria: Naturally, among other reasons because we wanted to request of the Holy Father—as I have already mentioned—the conclusion of Opus Dei’s canonical path, which Paul VI had also shown himself open to in the first audience that he granted to Don Alvaro del Portillo. And, in fact, the Pope took the steps necessary to reach that goal.
At the same time, I retain an especially pleasant memory of those first months. For the feast of the Epiphany in 1979, the ordination in St. Peter’s Basilica was set to take place of the Pope’s successor in the Archdiocese of Krakow, Archbishop.Macharski. The Holy Father wanted to celebrate it at the altar of the Confession, but it was suggested to him that the altar of the Cathedra might be better, because it would be difficult to fill the Basilica with people and it would be awkward if there were not enough people there. I don’t know who suggested to the Pope that he contact Msgr. del Portillo, to ask him to encourage many people to attend the episcopal ordination. During those days we were making a pastoral trip through various European countries. In Switzerland we received word of this from Rome. Seeing this request from the Pope, as he did on other occasions, Don Alvaro made every effort to mobilize the people of the Work, and asked them to do the same with their friends, to fill the Basilica. And in fact it was filled. Don Alvaro himself did not participate in the ceremony, since he wanted those attending to direct their affection entirely to John Paul II and the new archbishop. At the end of the celebration the Pope expressed his thanks to Opus Dei. It was the first time that a Pope had made a public reference to the Work in St. Peter’s Basilica.
There were other occasions on which the Pope counted on the help of the faithful of Opus Dei to mobilize many people.
I recall that John Paul II wanted, right from the start, to celebrate Mass for university students in St. Peter’s, as he had been doing in Krakow. We did what we could to help him to inaugurate that tradition. Don Alvaro suggested printing personal invitations that would include, besides information about the Mass, a good number of hours for confessions in the Basilica, and he said he would call dozens of confessors asking them to help out. This initiative turned out to be a great success.
During one of the lunchtime invitations that we received from the Pope in the pontifical apartment, Don Alvaro spoke about the need to foster confessions, in order to help people re-encounter our Lord, encouraging priests and laity to take part in this apostolate. To illustrate what he was saying, he told some anecdotes about the good results obtained around the world with this method of helping souls. John Paul II, with a smile of agreement, said: “You remind me of those good zealous pastors of my time, who spent their lives in this way to look after souls, whom they loved with all their strength.” At other times, in similar conversations, the Pope said, referring to the faithful of Opus Dei, both laity and priests: “You have the charism of Confession.” I know that he said the same thing to other people, with reference to the Work, because they mentioned it to us.
SC: We haven’t said anything about the beatification and canonization of St. Josemaria, both carried out by John Paul II.
Javier Echevarria: The Pope was very happy to elevate the founder of the Work to the altars. As you recall, before the beatification in 1992 misunderstandings arose that resulted in some controversy. These were blows by the devil’s tail to impede what was, as John Paul II said soon after the beatification, “a great manifestation of faith.” At the end of the ceremony, John Paul II himself expressed his joy at seeing so many thousands of people recollected in prayer, and he told Don Alvaro, who accompanied him as he walked towards the Basilica: “Now I understand why some sectarians didn’t want this manifestation of faith to take place.” The Pope added that he was very grateful to God for the opportunity to celebrate that ceremony, in which he also beatified Mother Bakhita, a Canossian nun, because it had helped bring to the world’s attention the tragic situation of the Church in the Sudan. In short, what has remained recorded for history is the good being done for the whole Church by devotion to St. Josemaria. And the Pope was very aware of this.
In the canonization, the Pope defined St. Josemaria as “the saint of the ordinary,” very much in harmony with his hope to evangelize society through ordinary life: in the domestic church that each family is, in work, in sports and in social relationships.
SC: John Paul II also went to pray before the mortal remains of Don Alvaro on the day of his death. Can you tell us something about those moments?
Javier Ecjevarria: On March 11, 1994, his 80th birthday, Don Alvaro received a hand-written message from John Paul II written on a photograph: “To our esteemed and beloved brother Alvaro del Portillo, who with gratitude to God is celebrating his eightieth birthday, in expression of my warm appreciation for his faithful work in the service of the Church, and imploring abundant heavenly graces for a ministry that will continue for many years to produce abundant fruit, I impart an affectionate and special apostolic blessing, extending it also to all the priests and laity of the Prelature.”
On the evening of March 22, 1994, we had just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and a few hours later, on the morning of the 23rd, God called to himself the Prelate of Opus Dei. I communicated the news to Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul II’s private secretary, at about six thirty in the morning. Don Stanislaw told me that he would communicate it to the Holy Father, and that they would pray for the eternal rest of the Prelate to God in their Mass. We had a nice surprise when the Prefect of the Pontifical Household, Msgr. Monduzzi, called us at about ten in the morning, to inform us that the Holy Father wanted to come in the afternoon to pray before Don Alvaro’s body. I won’t go into the details of this visit, but I do want to emphasize the interest shown by John Paul II.
He asked me when and where Don Alvaro had said his last Mass, since he knew he had just returned to Rome on the previous day. When I told him that it was at eleven in the morning in the Cenacle, I was surprised when the Pope quickly calculated the time elapsed between the hour of the Mass and his going to heaven. At the end I thanked him for the visit, which was so unusual, but the Pope interrupted me saying: “It was a duty, it was a duty.”
SC: And after your appointment as Prelate in 1994, did you yourself have a similar relationship with John Paul II?
The Pope continued to be equally paternal and affectionate. For example, he telephoned me personally to announce my appointment as Prelate. I visited him on various occasions to inform him about the development of the apostolates of the Work and was able to see his joy. A few months after the appointment, he conferred on me ordination as a bishop.
After the year 2000 the Pope was already quite sick, but he continued receiving me in audience with a certain frequency, to hear news of the apostolic activities of the Work all over the world. Three days after the death of the Pope, I went with Don Joaquin Alonso to pray before his mortal remains in St. Peter’s Basilica, and to greet Don Stanislaw, who invited us to pray in his private chapel and later encouraged us to go up to the terrace of the apostolic palace. He wanted to show us the immense stream of people who were coming to pay their final respects to the Pope and all the television transmitters from all over the world installed around St. Peter’s Square. Shortly afterwards, he gave me one of John Paul II’s cassocks, so that we could keep it as a relic.