Diocesan priests share recollections of St. John Paul II

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By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Elected by his brother cardinals on Oct. 16, 1978, he became the 263rd Successor of St. Peter.

His pontificate — one of the longest in the history of the Church — lasted nearly 27 years.

And for many of the younger priests now serving in the Fall River Diocese, he was the first — and for a long time the only — pope they knew as they grew up in the Church and began to discern a calling to the priesthood.

Now that the former Karol Józef Wojtyla has been canonized and will forever be known as St. John Paul II, some of those same priests took time recently to share with The Anchor how the Polish pontiff affected their faith.

“It is true that Pope John Paul II was the first and only pope that I knew as I was growing up,” said Father Jeff Cabral, judicial vicar of the diocesan Tribunal. “His papacy was important to my own faith life in terms of his commitment to youth. He challenged us to ‘be not afraid’ and to work for the New Evangelization. He made it very clear that young people are not only the future of the Church, but are also its present.”

“I was born in 1975, so I obviously have no recollection of either Pope Paul VI or Pope John Paul I,” said Father Rodney Thibault, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in South Dartmouth. “My first memory of Pope John Paul II I have as a young child was a picture my maternal grandparents had of him hanging in their living room. I remember asking my grandmother why she would keep his photo in the house and she told me that he was so important as he is the leader of the Church.”

“As a young man growing up thinking about the priesthood I remember seeing images of Pope John Paul II and being inspired by him and how much he made me think about Christ and how important He is in our lives, especially as young people,” added Father Jay Mello, parochial vicar at St. Mary’s Parish in Mansfield.

Father Riley J. Williams, parochial vicar of St. John the Evangelist and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in Attleboro, remembered studying in Rome in 2005 and seeing the pontiff just before his death.

“I was there in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday, a week before he died,” he said. “When he came to the window, he was unable to speak, although he was visibly trying to do so. Receiving his silent blessing that day, from a man who had clearly given all he had to Christ and His Church, has always been an inspiration to me.”

For Father Ron P. Floyd, who currently serves as chaplain at Pope John Paul II High School in Hyannis, the newly-canonized Holy Father has always been an inspiration and a personal hero.

“As the son of a Polish immigrant, St. John Paul II was very personally my pope growing up,” he said. “He was a member of the family, in the way that I am told Pius XII or John XXIII were for Catholics in the ’50s and early ’60s.”

In fact, as a young child Father Floyd remembered being compared to the Polish pontiff.

“Hearing my vocation early on, I would steal religious things from around my house so that I could set up a beautiful altar in my play room on which I could ‘play’ Mass,” Father Floyd said. “As a result of this, early on many of our family friends joked that I would be the next John Paul!”

Having been blessed to see Pope John Paul II on several occasions before his ordination, Father Kevin Cook, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Taunton, remembers one particular meeting while he was studying abroad outside of Rome with the University of Dallas.

“I was very fortunate to shake the Holy Father’s hand and attend a Mass in his private chapel,” Father Cook said. “Afterwards we all got to meet him. I was with two friends of mine and we had no idea we would get the chance to chat with him. I had brought a crucifix I bought for my sister with me to have him bless when we would be at the papal audience later that morning. When I found out we would be meeting him, I got permission to grab the crucifix and when he came around he blessed the crucifix and me. It was an incredible moment — especially at age 19 — and it had a huge impact on me.”

When he initially left to study for the priesthood in Rome in 1997, Father Thibault had high hopes of getting to meet Pope John Paul II.

“Little did I know that in October of 1997, I would have the privilege of kneeling in front of the late pontiff to present the gifts of bread and wine that we would use at Mass when he declared (St. Theresa the Little Flower of Jesus) a doctor of the Church,” Father Thibault said.

Father Thibault would later introduce the Holy Father to his parents in the pope’s private chapel during a Holy Week Mass celebration in 1998 and it was there that Pope John Paul II first used the chalice that Father Thibault still uses to this day.

“His papacy certainly was a part of my formation as a priest up until ordination,” Father Thibault said.

While in college, Father Floyd’s renewed interest in the priesthood and Pope John Paul II led him to enroll in a summer program offered by the Catholic University of Lublin, where Karol Wojtyla had once been a professor.

“That program was a seminal moment in my discernment of the priesthood,” Father Floyd said. “At the conclusion of the course, the monsignor who ran the program arranged for a private encounter with Pope John Paul II.”

Noting that at the time he had recently broken his foot and was “feeling a little sorry for myself,” Father Floyd was nevertheless eager to meet the Holy Father.

“By this time the John Paul of my imagination — a man full of vigor and youth — was long gone, replaced by the suffering pope bent and stricken by Parkinson’s disease,” he said. “John Paul was suffering greatly and extremely tired, having just that afternoon returned from an historic trip to the former Yugoslavia.

“Any sense of self-pity quickly dissolved seeing the great weariness in the pope, but I was also surprised to see eyes full of joy and welcome. I only spoke to him for a second, mumbling, completely at a loss for words, the traditional Polish greeting for a priest: ‘May Jesus Christ be praised,’ but I think he knew what I had said because he seemed to mouth the priest’s response: ‘For ever and ever, amen.’ For that moment I felt like I was the only one in the room with him and although the moment was over in a heartbeat, seeing his love for people even in the midst of his own suffering, a love that could only come from Jesus Christ, really touched my heart and pushed me toward an openness to the will of God that led me away from my plans for law school and politics, and towards the Altar of God.”

Father Mello recalled how inspirational Pope John Paul II was during those years as he suffered with Parkinson’s disease.

“When I was in seminary, watching him get older and more frail, I remember being inspired by his suffering and also his determination,” he said. “I remember thinking how powerful it was to see the pope struggle to walk and talk and yet, still inspire millions with his sheer presence.”

Father Cabral will never forget seeing St. John Paul II at World Youth Day in Denver, Colo. in the summer of 1993.

“I can recall being present for the papal welcoming ceremony at Mile High Stadium, and how thousands of us were literally screaming at the top of our lungs as the helicopter which carried Pope John Paul II arrived,” he said. “As the Holy Father welcomed youth from the United States and all over the world, he challenged us by saying: ‘Jesus has called each one of you to Denver for a purpose: You must live these days in such a way that, when the time comes to return home, each one of you will have a clearer idea of what Christ expects of you.’ Those words struck me, and remained with me, as I was discerning my vocational call, and my prayer, at the time, was to have a clearer idea of what Christ expected of me. Three years later, I entered the seminary.”

Known for many accomplishments during his papacy, including his fondness for youth and the establishment of World Youth Day, Father Williams said St. John Paul II should also be remembered for his devotion to the Blessed Mother.

“From his frequent pilgrimages to Marian shrines to his encouragement of the praying of the Rosary, he has not only shown that praying to Our Lady is important, but also how to do it,” Father Williams said.

Father Williams also cited the former pontiff’s encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” and his influential Theology of the Body as key teachings that “have given the Church the language and ideas it needs to continue to effectively teach in the modern world.”

For Father Thibault, he’ll always remember St. John Paul II’s remarkable sense of mercy.

“I would say that one of the major hallmarks of his papacy was when he went to the jail where the person who attempted to take his life was being held and forgave him,” Father Thibault said. “That was the Gospel literally coming to life! Jesus’ instruction that we forgive was played out in real time and his was the ultimate model of humility. I know that in my own life, when I have difficulty forgiving someone who has wronged me, I turn to that example.”

Father Cabral said St. John Paul II should also be remembered for his extensive travels and attempts to embrace and evangelize all people.

“He was such an effective pope and leader for the Church because he embraced so many different peoples at their level,” he said. “As a Pole, he was the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years. He was open to all — Catholic or non-Catholic, male or female, young or old.”

“He just radiated a love of Christ and joyfulness,” Father Cook added. “He also taught how as a disciple of the Lord and as a priest how to unite one’s suffering to Christ — whether it was when he was shot and later forgave Ali Agca, his intended assassin, or whether it was his last few years of incredible physical suffering — and yet persevering and teaching us the dignity of the sick and suffering.”

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts