In 1984, I was a college student quite excited that Pope John Paul II was visiting Canada and would be celebrating a public Mass at Downsview Airforce Base in Toronto. Typical of many college students, I needed no planning other than to locate a friend to share the experience and verify that we had enough funds to fill the gas tank and our stomachs and to pay international crossing fees. Early the next morning, after crossing the Ambassador Bridge, which links Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, we ventured onto Route 401, which would bring us into Toronto in slightly under four hours.
We entered the metropolitan Toronto area to find that seemingly every exit had been closed for the papal event. I thought to myself, if only I had done some planning! Eventually, our journey led us onto a downtown street, but we were uncertain about our next step. After a time, I remember idling at a street corner when a police officer approached to ask why we were stopped. Sheepishly, I said: “We are here to see the pope.” He replied, “Turn here and park. The entrance to Downsview Airforce Base is 100 meters straight ahead.”
Needless to say, the experience of being gathered with hundreds of thousands of faith-filled Catholics is one that I will never forget. After hours of waiting, the throng erupted in applause as the Holy Father made his way onto the air force base via a military helicopter. Prior to landing, we could see him waving and blessing. Against the late-afternoon sun, the helicopter made a shadow that immediately reminded me of the passage from Acts of the Apostles (5:14-15):
And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.
I was further blessed to have attended another papal Mass on the final leg of Pope John Paul II’s tour of the United States in 1987 and received Holy Communion from the pontiff himself in 1991. Despite never having fallen under the shadow of Pope Benedict XVI, I nevertheless feel as though I have. Through his leadership and constant prayer, he led the Church through a dark period of moral lapse while reminding us in the first sentence of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, that “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16)
Which brings me to the election of Pope Francis. After his emergence from behind the red curtain and stepping onto the balcony at St. Peter’s, I thought about the impact he would make (and will have) upon the lives of those present, the millions watching on television, and those inhabiting every corner of the globe.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal (March 17, 2013), Peggy Noonan reflected that initially “he looked tentative, even overwhelmed. I thought, as I watched, ‘My God- he’s shy.’ And then, before he gave a blessing, he asked the crowd to pray for him, at which the cheering square suddenly became silent. I thought, ‘My God- he’s humble,’ at which point a friend noted that this was more than just cynical humanity. This was showing there is another way to be.”
Just yesterday, a dear friend emailed me regarding his thoughts regarding our current predicament:
Pax Dominus vobiscum,
A fellow pilgrim on the journey home, although I have quite a head start on you, nearly thirty years. I can see quite an inferno ahead. I am not sure whether it is the Beatific Vision or the fires of Gehenna. There is quite a fork in the road just a short way ahead, so I had better pay attention and sign off.
Get ready. In the shadows of Simon Peter, something great is emerging. Just you wait and see.