BOSTON — When I think about Pope John Paul II, I am reminded of two of my favorite prayers. The first is titled “One Solitary Life,” which was written by an anonymous author. The other is the “Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi.” I will briefly paraphrase these two special prayers to explain why I believe they relate to Pope John Paul II.
“One Solitary Life” is about a poor preacher who never had mighty armies to rule, nor wealth, nor held powerful political positions. Yet 2000 years after His birth nobody has had as much of an effect on society and all mankind as this one poor priest: Jesus Christ. “The Prayer of St. Francis” asks Our Lord to make us instruments of peace; "where there is hatred let me sow love. Where there is injury pardon."
Paradoxically, I am also reminded of what the Russian communist dictator Joseph Stalin sarcastically said of a previous pope's lack of influence: "How many divisions does he have?" All of these famous excerpts, with their conflicting opinions, help me understand the difficulty most people have in describing Karol Wojtyla.
But having known Pope John Paul II, long before he was pontiff, let me share with you one personal example above all others that will give you an insight as to how he looks at himself. This is not someone else's opinion, but from the man who best knows Karol Wojtyla — and that is himself.
Pope John Paul II and former President Bill Clinton were preparing to address the media after their private meeting at St. Regis College in Denver, Colo. I informed both the pope and the president of the enormous media interest in their conversation and asked the Holy Father if he would agree to take questions about what the two leaders had to say to each other. I have a positive and special friendship with the man that dates back to when I first met him in Boston, when he was archbishop of Krakow, so I knew that he was emphatic, but sincere, in his response to me. "Raymond," he said, "I'm a Catholic priest." Somehow that comment said it all. Those four simple words spoke volumes as to who he felt he was and what he personally believed was his mission. His did not view himself as a powerful and famous political leader, but rather a moral voice for peace and justice.
Another defining moment was when I was able to observe, first-hand, John Paul II encompassing human compassion occurred in March of 1995. My wife, Kathy, and nine of her childhood friends — now mothers and grandmothers — came to Rome and stayed with us during my time as ambassador. At first, one of her friends, Charlene Bizokas, was not going to travel to Italy because she had recently lost her son, Ralph, in a tragic car accident. She was deeply despondent. A few days after the group — including Charlene — arrived, John Paul II presided over a major event in St. Peter's Square, with many important religious and secular leaders from all over the world attending.
During the service, I was able to make eye contact with Monsignor Dzwisz, the pope's secretary and long-time friend. He nodded to me in the crowd but later through my body language could sense that I had something important to communicate to the Holy Father. He sent a priest over to me discreetly, and I told him briefly about Charlene's anguish and pain. The priest then passed my words on to Monsignor Dzwisz and ultimately they reached the pope himself.
At the end of the service, I was told to wait on the steps by the Porta Sancta (holy door) with the "Boston mothers" as I introduced them to the Holy Father. He greeted them all warmly, but what he said to the grieving mother was so revealing about the man. "Mothers are given much love, but also much pain. Like Mary when her son died. I know that you have suffered, as Mary suffered. But like Mary, you will see your son again."
The Holy Father's face seemed to reflect the pain that lived in Charlene's heart. It was as if he were absorbing it, taking it from her. Charlene was sobbing, but you could almost feel her releasing some of the pain. Tears streamed down all of our faces, right there outside St. Peter's Basilica.
Even now, I still cannot stop thinking about what he once said to me. "Raymond, I'm a Catholic priest."
Raymond L. Flynn is the former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, a former mayor of Boston and author of "The Accidental Pope: A Novel" and "John Paul II: A Personal Portrait of the Pope and the Man."