Why we love our sainted popes

By Linda Andrade Rodrigues, Anchor Correspondent

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Although most of us will never have an audience with a pope, we came to know our two new sainted pontiffs, Good Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II the Great, through the eyes of others.

Some of those folks live among us, and through the years as a religion writer, I have had the pleasure to share their encounters, showing the popes’ very human side and why they are counted among the saints in Heaven.

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Father Timothy J. Goldrick, pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth and an Anchor columnist, was one of 100 concelebrants at a Mass with Pope John Paul II in Philadelphia; and he found himself sitting just a few feet from the papal throne. 

“My mind wandered during a particularly long prayer, and I began to look around,” he said. “Pope John Paul II smiled and gave me one of his little blessings, crossing me with his right hand; and in a reflex action, I blessed him back. And the pope laughed.”

Dr. Joseph H. Hagan, a Lay Dominican and Little Compton, R.I., resident, served Pope John Paul II from his appointment as a Gentleman-in-Waiting in 1991 until the pontiff’s death in 2005. It was his duty to escort dignitaries and heads of state to an audience with the pope.

“John Paul liked to tease,” said Hagan, relating a conversation between the two.

At the Vatican Hagan escorted the ambassador of Japan and his wife for an audience with the pope. The couple waited while he approached the pontiff. 

“Are they all right with you?” asked St. John Paul II.

“Do you mean do I like them?” replied Hagan. “Yes.”

“Then they are all right with me,” said the pope smiling.

Hagan prays to St. John Paul II every day.

“I have a great devotion to him,” he said. “He’s my favorite modern saint.”

Suffering from cervical myelopathy, a stroke of the spine, José Amaral, a parishioner of St. Anthony of Padua Church in New Bedford, prayed to the late pope: 

“Pope John Paul the Great, please help me,” he pleaded. “Help me to understand God’s will.” 

Turning on the TV to EWTN, he watched the movie, “Witness to Hope,” a biography of Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II. 

“That is when something came over me that is very difficult to explain,” he said. “I just kept remembering the pope’s words: ‘Be not afraid.’” 

On Jan. 30, 2008 at 3 p.m., Amaral prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and looked over at Pope John Paul II’s picture. 

“I decided to get up and try to walk around without my crutches,” he said. “I just walked back and forth, and I didn’t stop — and I’ve never stopped since.” 

Amaral’s doctor had no scientific explanation for the healing. A letter was sent to the postulator at the Vatican relating his healing through the intercession of Pope John Paul II. 

Father Roger Landry, pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River, met personally with Pope John Paul II many times. He remembers the pontiff’s smile and blessing as he put his very soft hands on his face and then on his forehead. But the most memorable meeting was their last, about six months before the pope’s death. Leading a pilgrimage in the Vatican, Father Landry and his tour group huddled close to the ailing pontiff for a group photograph. Kneeling down next to the pope, he felt a hand pushing down on him; and when he turned around, he saw John Paul II struggling to reach out and touch him.

Father Stanley Sobiech, OFM Conv. was serving at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in New Bedford at the time of Pope John Paul II’s passing. He struggled to find the words as he grappled with the loss of his shepherd and countryman. 

“I almost physically and mentally collapsed,” he said when he heard the news. 

Residing at the Franciscan Basilica in Krakow, Poland, Father Sobiech lived across the street from Karol Wojtyla, the Bishop of Krakow. 

“I received my tonsure (shaved circle at the top of his head) from him at ordination,” he said. 

As a young seminarian, Father Charbel T. Semaan, the former pastor of Our Lady of Purgatory Church in New Bedford, celebrated Mass with Pope John Paul II in the pontiff’s private chapel. 

“I shook his hand and touching him was like touching God on Earth,” he said.

Msgr. John J. Oliveira, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in New Bedford, visited Rome a number of times as secretary to Bishop Seán O’Malley.

“It was awesome to be able to meet Pope John Paul II personally,” he said. “I recall most of all his eye contact. He knew how important it was for each person to witness the Successor of Peter.”

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When Cardinal Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli became pope, he chose the name “John” and joked about it.

“It is the name which has been most used in the long series of Roman pontiffs,” and “nearly all of them had a brief pontificate,” he quipped.

His papacy is primarily linked with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Sister Gertrude Gaudette, a Dominican Sister of Hope and nonagenarian, said that Good Pope John’s decree changed everything; but the sad thing is he didn’t stay. He died on June 3, 1963 — four years, seven months and six days into his pontificate.

Ten years ago Father Goldrick told me that if he had the opportunity to dine and converse across time with one of the greatest religious minds the world has ever known, he would choose to break bread with Good Pope John.

“I think we would have a picnic on the shore,” he said. “We would have some simple grilled fish (a-la the meal cooked for the Apostles by the Resurrected Lord), wine, freshly-baked bread, grilled vegetables in season and some seasonal fruit served with angel food cake.”

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts