Sitting Next to Peter: My Personal Remembrances of Pope John Paul IIJOHN F. CROSBY
If I were to speak about what affected me most deeply about John Paul, I would have to mention the wonderful icon of fatherhood that I always felt him to be.
A friend of mine once said to me that there was in John Paul a marvelous unity of person and office. He meant that a pope, whoever he is, always has the office of shepherd and father, and that in John Paul the office was filled by one who in his person was a “radiant” father, so that the address “Holy Father” could be spoken to John Paul with an unusual fullness of meaning.
But I want to do something more modest than to reflect on John Paul as an icon of fatherhood. I want to share the memories of two of my personal encounters with him.
The first goes back to the early 1990s. I was in Rome at the time, teaching a short course as a guest professor at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. Since John Paul had personally founded this school in 1983, he took a particular interest in the professors and even the guest professors who taught in it. So, I was given an opportunity, together with some others, to meet with him in the Vatican.
I brought with me a letter from my wife, in which she asked him to consider raising St. Thérèse of Lisieux to the dignity of “Doctor of the Church.” He opened the letter, read it, and then said, with a mischievous smile, “I see that Professor Crosby has a very devout wife, but what about Professor Crosby himself — is he devout at all?” I was delighted to be the recipient of John Paul’s teasing humor.
The second remembrance that I would like to share goes back to 1991. Throughout his time as Pope, John Paul used to spend a part of each summer at the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo, just outside of Rome. While staying there, he liked to invite small groups of scholars for informal discussion on issues of interest to him, including topics of science and literature. I had the great privilege of being included in a group of about twelve philosophers and theologians invited to Castel Gandolfo for two days of discussion on the fundamentals of moral theology. Since the encyclical Veritatis Splendor was in preparation at that time, these issues were very much on John Paul’s mind.
Each day opened with Mass with the Holy Father, and on the second day it was the Mass of St. Maximillian Kolbe, his countryman whom he had just recently canonized. We had breakfast with the Holy Father each day, and in fact we took all our meals with him — even our afternoon coffee. After dinner on the first evening, the Poles in the group serenaded the Holy Father with Polish folk songs. I still see him standing at the top of a flight of stairs, very relaxed and smiling in a distinctly playful way as his countrymen sang songs that he obviously knew.
We gathered for discussion in the morning and the afternoon in the garden of the papal palace. Each guest was asked to take a turn making some remarks of about 20 minutes so as to open the conversation. Of course, I was very nervous when it came to my turn, for I had never expected to be in the position of speaking at some length while the Holy Father listened.
I must say I was a bit surprised to notice that he was saying the Divine Office while I spoke, but at the same time, he seemed to be fully following what I was saying. I remembered at that moment that he was known for having the rare ability to focus on several different themes at the same time.
Throughout our discussions in those two days, he did not speak a great deal, but always listened intently; he was always very present to us, but in a receptive, listening way. Even at meals, he remained in a listening mode, more concerned with drawing his guests out than with asserting himself.
My most unforgettable memory from those days is a moment from the last evening. We were all sitting on a rooftop terrace overlooking Lake Albano, a beautiful ancient crater lake surrounded by much Roman history and lore. The light of a clear summer evening was fading, and for a moment we heard the bells of the church of Castel Gandolfo announcing the high feast of the next day — the Assumption.
I had raised a question, but I do not recall much of the discussion because I was absorbed in the Holy Father, next to whom I was sitting. He looked so venerable, being deep in thought, with his white hair caught in an evening breeze. He began speaking slowly, softly, seriously, but I remember only some fragments, for I was held captive by the mystery of the moment, the weight of the centuries, the evening stillness, and the thought that I was sitting next to Peter, the prophet of the new world of Christ raised on the ruins of the old Roman world.
John F. Crosby. "Sitting Next to Peter: My Personal Remembrances of Pope John Paul II." Lay Witness (March/April 2006): 44-45.
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