Local Catholics reflect on pope's legacy - Catholic Courier
A girl poses next to a picture of Pope John Paul II during an exhibit devoted to the late pontiff in downtown Rome April 20. A girl poses next to a picture of Pope John Paul II during an exhibit devoted to the late pontiff in downtown Rome April 20.

Local Catholics reflect on pope’s legacy

Bishop Matthew H. Clark remembers well the night Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected and became Pope John Paul II.

Though he and the others in St. Peter’s Square that night were excited, none of them could know the newest successor of St. Peter would lead the Catholic church for the next 26 years and later would be credited with helping bring down communism in Eastern Europe and drawing young people across the globe back into the flock. Bishop Clark did not know that in just a few months Pope John Paul II would ordain him the eighth Bishop of Rochester, or that after the charismatic pope’s 2005 death, St. Peter’s Square would ring with the chants of thousands calling for the late pope’s immediate canonization.

Their cries were heard, and Pope John Paul II is well on his way to sainthood. Pope Benedict XVI was scheduled to beatify his predecessor on May 1, just six years after Pope John Paul II’s death.

"It’s some indication that there is sort of a groundswell of recognition among the people that there was an extraordinary servant in their midst," Bishop Clark remarked.

Pope John Paul II was popular practically from the moment he was elected, recalled Bishop Clark, who was serving as spiritual director of the North American College in Rome on that fateful night in October 1978. A Pole, John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years, and many Catholics eagerly embraced this change, he said. The new pope even won over many Italians, however, when he addressed the crowd in Italian.

"I remember him saying, ‘Pardon my poor Italian.’ They were just thrilled that he knew their language," Bishop Clark said.

He met Pope John Paul II in May 1979, when he was one of the first bishops ordained by the new pope. Bishop Clark said he was when Pope John Paul II laid his hands on the new bishop’s head and prayed over him, and impressed by his congeniality after the ordination.

"It was a great thrill to meet him, shake his hand," said Bishop Clark, who was in the pope’s company a number of times over the following years.

Bishop Clark met with the pope every five years for ad limina visits, and on these occasions Pope John Paul II typically invited the visiting bishops to share a meal with him and concelebrate Mass in his private chapel. The pope always impressed Bishop Clark by remembering he’d ordained the young bishop.

"He was always very encouraging. It was always a nice boost. They say one of the great ministries of the Holy Father is to confirm his brothers in faith. It really was a confirming experience to meet him," Bishop Clark said.

Pope John Paul II also encouraged young people to embrace their faith and put it into practice, he said. His rock star-like presence notwithstanding, Pope John Paul II was able to stir the hearts of young people and make a lasting impression on them. He loved young people, who recognized this and loved him in return, noted Father William Coffas, citing as evidence the throngs of young people who kept vigil outside his window during his last hours on earth and streamed into Vatican City for his funeral.

"I think for young Catholics, they aspire to his sense of optimism and the hope that is personified in John Paul II," said Father Coffas, director of Becket Hall, the diocesan residence for men discerning possible priestly vocations.

"He was such an advocate for young people," added Frank Vivacqua II, a student at Becket Hall. "He had so much faith in them, and I think he brought them back to the church in some fashion."

The late pope’s powerful words and presence inspired people of all ages, noted Vivacqua, who carries with him a copy of Pope John Paul II’s famous quote, "Be not afraid."

"Just those very simple words … are so clear and powerful. As a future seminarian not knowing what lies ahead for me, it’s so meaningful, something to live by," Vivacqua said.

The pope used those words to quell the fears of oppressed Catholics in eastern Europe and by doing so let communist leaders know that although they took away people’s churches, they could not take away their faith, Father Coffas said. These same words took on even more meaning in the pope’s final years, when the Parkinson’s disease that ravaged his body made it obvious he was suffering, Vivacqua said.

The people of Rochester’s St. Stanislaus Parish, many of whom have Polish backgrounds, have been praying for Pope John Paul II’s beatification since he died and were overjoyed to learn their prayers were not in vain, said Father Adam Ogorzaly, St. Stanislaus’ pastor. At Father Ogorzaly’s invitation, Bishop Clark planned to celebrate a May 1 Mass of thanksgiving at the parish, during which 15 of the parish’s children were scheduled to make their first Communion.

Polish-Americans at St. Stanislaus feel honored to have ethnic ties to Pope John Paul II, but they recognize that the late pope belongs to people of all nationalities and all ages, noted Sonja Stenclik, religious-education coordinator at the parish.

"I think that’s pretty special that we have a saint in our midst in this 21st century world where everything else is falling apart," she said. "This is a time for us as a church to rejoice, not just the Polish community."

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