By Fr. Thom Hennen
Last month I had the opportunity to visit a close friend and seminary classmate for a few days in Washington, D.C. While there, I visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, in the same building that formerly housed the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, near the campus of The Catholic University of America.
I had thought it might be just a small display and that I would be in and out in a half-hour or so. What I discovered was a very thorough and extremely well-done exhibit. I ended up staying there for almost two hours. Everything is well laid out, as it takes you chronologically through the life of this incredible man. I was surprised by how many artifacts they had from his life and papacy, some of which were very personal and significant.
They also have two beautiful chapels at the shrine — the Redemptor Hominis Chapel and the Luminous Mysteries Chapel — with mosaics by the famous Jesuit artist, Father Marko Rupnik. The artistic value of these chapels alone is worth the visit. Also, in the Luminous Mysteries Chapel they have a vile of St. John Paul’s blood displayed in a reliquary for public veneration. This was especially poignant to visit after going through the whole exhibit, particularly the section on the 1981 assassination attempt.
What surprised me most, though, was not the exhaustiveness of the exhibit or the great collection of artifacts, or even the beauty of the chapels. What truly caught me off guard was how quickly I found myself getting emotional as I walked through, even tearing up at several points along the way. This was especially the case in hearing John Paul’s distinctive voice again in recordings and seeing him in video footage.
When I left, I had to ask myself, “What was going on back there? Why did I react so emotionally to this exhibit?” The answer, at least on the surface, was clear to me. John Paul II was the pope for most of my life after all. Okay, technically, I was born at the tail end of Paul VI’s pontificate, and was also alive for all 33 days of John Paul I’s papacy, but practically speaking, Pope John Paul II was the pope I knew from the time I had any concept of a pope, through my adolescence, all the way through seminary. No wonder I was a little emotional.
But more than this, I think I was emotional because this man had really been there from beginning to end in my discernment of a call to the priesthood. I first thought about being a priest when I was in fourth grade, but really the next significant moment after that was at World Youth Day 1993 in Denver, Colo. I’ve never been in such a large group of people and yet felt such a personal connection to a person who was just a little “white dot” way down on a stage at Mile High Stadium.
Just eight years later, I would have the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II personally as vice-chair of the orientation team at the North American College. Each year we would bring the new seminarians out to the pope’s summer residence for one of his regular audiences. After giving a short address, the pope would greet particular groups of guests (often in their native language), including a welcome to the new men of the North American College. Shortly after we arrived, the seminary rector approached me and my classmate, who was the chair of the orientation team, and told us to come with him. Before we knew it, we were being escorted into the papal residence with a small group of dignitaries. Sure enough, at the end of the audience, the Holy Father briefly greeted each of us personally, and extended his hand (which cupped a souvenir rosary) for the traditional “baciamano” (kissing of the ring hand). I honestly can’t remember what I said, but I think it was something like, “Thank you, Holy Father.” It was all over in a matter of seconds. Still, like at World Youth Day in 1993 (only now a lot closer), there was a deep sense of personal connection.
Finally, as a newly ordained priest assigned to return to Rome for a year of advanced studies, I was privileged to be standing in St. Peter’s Square the evening of April 2, 2005, when it was announced that Pope John Paul II had “returned to the house of his Father.” Two days later, I was among hundreds, if not thousands, of priests who were part of the procession for the transfer of his body to St. Peter’s Basilica for public viewing, and four days after that I was again among a great multitude in St. Peter’s Square for his funeral.
In a very real way, Pope St. John Paul II provided the “book ends” of my priestly discernment. I think that’s why I found myself getting a little choked up as I visited his shrine last month. In recalling his own priestly example, he reminded me what first stirred my heart to consider this call. In the busy-ness of priestly life I needed to receive again the gift and mystery of my own calling.
Thank you, Holy Father, and pray for us!
(Father Thom Hennen is director of vocations for the Diocese of Davenport and is chaplain and director of campus ministry at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)