As the family goes, so goes the nation.It was like an electric current that sticks to your ribs, and it shot through the entire congregation during the homily. Of course! I am a cradle Catholic and never wavered (well, except occasionally/temporarily regarding some teaching). I have two Polish grandmothers (both since passed) so it was a big deal when a Pole became pope. Particularly so for the Troglomatrix's mother, with whom we were close. We always paid attention to the pope. But this was something new. When I read Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the seeds were planted. That I was even in St. Louis seemed to be more than just a string of coincidences, and now I was beginning to see why.
I was living in Oklahoma at the time and I mentioned in passing to my mother, the Troglomatrix (living here in the Twin Cities), that I would like to see the pope during his visit to St. Louis in January 1999, where my brother just happened to be attending graduate school. A few days later she called me back and asked me if I was serious about going. She is the Admin. Asst. at a Catholic school and one of the teachers had come into the office with a prayer card from a student's mother that had a picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa hugging the Holy Father. Being half-Polish, my mother recognized Our Lady immediately, of course. During the conversation that followed, my mother mentioned that I wanted to see the pope, but didn't know how to get tickets because there was little mention of the visit in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, and he was coming in just a few days. The teacher relayed the story to her religion class, and the student mentioned it at dinner that night. It turned out that his mother was in a parish prayer group that was given tickets for the papal Mass, but she wouldn't be able to attend. She sent me the ticket (through my mother). I traveled to St. Louis, where my brother acted as host, put me up for the night, and got me where I needed to be.
Here is what I wrote (inadequately, I think) soon after the pope's visit to St. Louis:
The opportunity to see Pope John Paul II and to participate in the Solemn Eucharistic Celebration at America's Center during the papal visit to St. Louis last month was a blessing for which I am deeply grateful. My hopes were for a rewarding and inspiring experience. It was that and more.
One of my pictures of the pope's visit to St. Louis in 1999. Go here for more on the visit.
I was able to get within approximately 20 feet of the Holy Father when he toured Cervantes Convention Center, and I was able to see him well. That and the intense sense of communion with the nearly 110,000 people during the papal Mass were deeply moving, in addition to being surreal. Unlike other intensely emotional events, I think it was not so much a life-changing experience as a life-affirming one.
The righteousness of what we believe was made so obvious to me that my confidence in the Catholic Faith, which is determined by life's experiences, has been raised to a level I did not think I could achieve yet, i.e., in my early thirties. So too did the Apostolic Exhortation, based on the Synod for America, resonate with me, which His Holiness reemphasized on this pastoral visit. In particular, I have taken to heart the need to focus on the family and today's children in the New Evangelization.
While I disagree, as noted above, my family will say that I was changed by that trip. OK, maybe. I did actually begin studying the Catechism and the pope's encyclicals, and found out how little I knew, despite 12 years of Catholic school. I did actually begin praying every day. I did focus more on bridging my faith and my life. In short, I sensed I was preparing for a mission.
My first mission, however, was not to my children, as I expected, but to my father. In May 1999 he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The family came together, like families do in such times. When I arrived, everybody else had their roles worked out, centered on daily tasks. My father, in particular, seemed lost in minutiae. That left me to ask him the big question, "What do you believe, Dad?" He had been a faithful Catholic his whole life. He had made the First Friday and First Saturday devotions. It took just a few conversations, not many, for me to remind him who he had always been. Yes, he was worried about what was happening, but he knew how to prepare for whatever was meant to be. He began praying more openly (though nothing like a charismatic) and more often than I had ever seen him. I learned that while he was growing up, his father had seen to it that the family prayed, often together. Here is where he started. As his condition declined rapidly, it got so that he repeated the Hail Mary for hours, for days, in a rhythm as seductive as breathing.
A few days earlier my mother received a framed print of the picture on the prayer card from the teacher at school. During one of the conversations with my father he pointed at the pope, with his head on Our Lady's shoulder, and said, "That's what it's all about. That says it all." He was ready. To be honest, I am not sure how I could have gotten to this point without being re-armed in Faith. I consider my being able to help my father as a special Grace from the pope's trip, but it is decidedly not the only Grace.
There has been a lot of talk as to what is the legacy of the Holy Father: the collapse of communism, a steadying hand for the Barque of Peter, the theological time bomb of the Theology of the Body, the fruits of World Youth Day, his example of discipleship to the end, and so on. It is these and then some. Does this list capture his greatest accomplishment as pope? Perhaps. I do know this. In our family, without him, Troglotykes 5, 6, and 7 would not exist, nor the fountain of blessings they bring. And ours is not a unique experience. He inspired the creation of a lot of new people. "Be not afraid!" Indeed, we need not be afraid of having a large family in a society whose members look at you askance and murmer (if not comment directly). His revival of the domestic church may very well have created a legacy that will live literally into the 22nd century.
As he guided the Church from the end of one century to the beginning another, so to did he bring the Grace for me to be a guide at the end of one life and at the beginning of others. I am a better man because of him. Today's tears are bittersweet. May the angels lead him into paradise. May he rest in peace.
Pope John Paul the Great, pray for us.