By Fr Brendan Quinlivan
Come Sunday, I will be able to boast that I had the privilege of meeting an officially canonised saint of the Church on a few occasions. Having been lucky enough to spend a few years in Rome during my studies for the priesthood, I met St John Paul a few times. One of those privileged moments stands out in a particular way.
It happened in September 1992 when the Pope beatified 17 Irish martyrs on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Students of the Pontifical Irish College returned to Rome early that year to assist the influx of Irish pilgrims who came to participate in the beatification. An added bonus was that we were invited to serve the beatification mass at which Pope John Paul II was to be the celebrant.
Early in the morning, a bus arrived at the gates of the Irish College to transport us to St Peter’s. Since we shared the bus with a bunch of Irish bishops, we felt that the sing-song that usually accompanies student bus trips might not be appropriate. Any attempt to start a chorus of Stop the bus we want to…. would have been frowned upon by the college authorities. I sat beside Bishop Harty and we made some small talk on the journey to the Vatican.
Thankfully, the practices we had with the Papal Masters of Ceremonies earlier in the week ensured that the ceremony went smoothly. My job was to hold the portable microphone that the Pope used whenever he spoke from the chair. It was a precision job that required a steady hand. One slip and I could have given the Pope a black eye with the bulbous microphone head.
At the end of the ceremony, we were all directed to the chapel at the end of the Basilica that contains the famous Pieta by Michelangelo. After four years in Rome, it was my first time to see the iconic statue up close instead of from the other side of the bullet-proof glass. An Italian monsignor instructed us to wait as the Holy Father wanted to greet us. Call me a philistine but I suddenly lost interest in the wonderful renaissance art that surrounded us.
In the whole of his health at the time, Pope John Paul bounded into the chapel a few minutes later. I was about halfway down the line of eight or 10 students and was more than a little star struck. Then, to my horror, he began to engage my classmates in conversation one by one. My God, what would I say? Would I be able to answer his question? What if he asked me something hard?
When he reached me, I extended a trembling hand. The man, who must have shaken millions of hands, had a remarkably firm grip. He looked directly at me and asked where in Ireland I was from? Now you would imagine that that was a relatively easy question but my mind went blank. I looked at the Pope, who was looking at me waiting for an answer. My God he’ll think I’m an idiot if I don’t answer soon. I had visions of him instructing the rector not to ordain the guy who can’t remember where he’s from.
Suddenly. instead of having a blank mind. it began to race. He is unlikely to have heard of Stonehall or Newmarket I thought to myself. Just as the Pope was about to move on. I blurted out that I came from near Shannon Airport. It wasn’t a lie as one of the airport’s runways runs perpendicular to Stonehall Cross. “Ah yes,” said the Pope, “I remember Shannon”. He turned to one of his assistants and picked a rosary off a silver tray and placed it in my hand.
Those rosary beads became one of my most treasured possessions. I didn’t even take them out of their little plastic purse for almost 12 years. But then I felt that they deserved to be used, as I was leading a pilgrimage to Fatima – a shrine for which St John Paul had a special fondness. At some point during the pilgrimage, a woman from Derry asked me if there was something wrong with my rosary beads. It seems that every time I led the rosary, I only said only nine Hail Marys in either the first or last decade.
Right enough, an examination of the beads revealed they were missing a single bead. Somehow, their little quirk made them all the more special.
From then on, I became less concerned about treating the beads as a precious relic and began to use them as a touchstone for daily prayer. They continued be close at hand until I encountered someone going through a great tragedy in their lives.
I don’t know what made me do it but I took the beads from my pocket. I explained where they came from and suggested they keep them until the day they encountered someone more in need of the gift of prayer and consolation than themselves. Strangely, I had no regrets about parting with the faulty Rosary Beads.
I often find that it is in brokenness, fragility and imperfection that we see more clearly our need of God. It is often in the moments of our greatest suffering that we draw closer to God. The same is true of the saints. It would be wrong to view our saints as perfect people. They wouldn’t ever have regarded themselves as perfect and neither should we.
St John Paul was formed in a crucible of suffering. The loss of his brother and parents at a young age, which could easily have led to despair, may in fact have caused him to lean on his faith even more.
His experience of hard labour as well as political oppression, from both the Nazis and Communists, could so easily have led him to violence rather than to becoming a minister of peace and reconciliation. His long final battle with the effects of Parkinson’s Disease has shown us to persevere in the face of great adversity.
As John Paul II is canonised this weekend, I am delighted to see that the parish of Shannon, which he remembered, has not forgotten him. The Parish Priest of Shannon sent ma a wonderful sticker for my car with an image of the new saint. As the most travelled Pope in history, the protection of the saint will be a source of reassurance for all who travel on our roads and in the air, that they will do so in safety.
The car sticker features the last recorded photo of John Paul on Irish soil at Shannon Airport, blessing the people before he flew from Shannon Airport to the United States. The car sticker also encourages people to fly locally using Shannon Airport, just like St John Paul did.