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Posted April 29, 2005

Unique Reflections on Pope John Paul II

Rev. Joseph F. Wimmer, OSA
Associate Professor, Sacred Scripture
Washington Theological Union

Pope John Paul II’s “Firsts”

Pope John Paul II has accomplished a number of papal ‘firsts’ — some of them little known — that attest to his breath of vision and independent spirit. He was the first to build a swimming pool for himself at the papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, the first to turn the terraced roof of his Vatican residence into an exercise walkway with potted plants, the first to bring Christmas trees into St. Peter’s Square at Christmastime, the first modern pope to go skiing while in office, and to receive hundreds of sports goods from young people throughout the world, especially tennis rackets and skis.

On a more official note, he was the first pope ever to embrace the theory of evolution as a scientific explanation of the origin and development of the universe, the first modern pope to establish a commission to investigate the case of Galileo (1979-1984) and give a verdict (‘innocent’), the first to apologize to the Jewish community for Catholic excesses in the past. He was also the first pope to insist that Christianity is not a ‘supersessionist’ religion that ‘supplanted’ Judaism and made God’s covenant with Israel obsolete.

Politically, his actions helped in the liberation of Poland from Communist rule, and indeed, the fall of the Soviet Union in Russia itself. Again and again he strove to better the Latin Church’s relationship with the various Orthodox patriarchates, and with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the different Christian communities of Europe. He was certainly the first pope to visit so many religious communities throughout the world, in an effort to bring about world unity.

It is too often to pronounce history’s judgement on his papacy, but we can be sure that he will be recognized as one of the most important popes of the 20th century, and perhaps even of all time.

Kevin R. Locke
Vice President, Institutional Advancement
Washington Theological Union

John Paul and Lady Liberty

In the fall of 1995 I traveled from the Vatican to New York with the Papal Delegation. I was director of public relations at Vatican Radio, the official broadcaster (and owner of) the voice of the Holy Father. The service at St. Patrick’s cathedral went well and the procession began from the chancel through the nave to the street. Then it all went very John Paul for the next hour or so.

After having lost the Holy Father on Fifth Avenue (and later found him in from of Saks Fifth Avenue greeting guests), the papal delegation departed St. Patrick’s for the heliport down by Wall St. As we passed the teaming throngs of pilgrims, well wishers and curious Americans, I was struck by John Paul’s perspective from the limousine. The view was most amazing and humbling: it seemed as though the collective countenance of humanity was represented on the faces of this human tapestry. But the curious thing is that each face called out in such a singular and provocative fashion. Many were crying. Others were waving with a grand gesture of hope and gratitude.

The Secret Service boarded us onto the helicopter and it departed from the southern tip of Manhattan. As the chugging helicopter (with both front and rear doors open!), reached altitude, we came very close to eye level of the Statue of Liberty. What an experience it was to be the token American in charge of explaining touring possibilities of Lady Liberty. And what a site it was to watch the curial cardinals and the Holy Father make their way to the port side of the aircraft to look out into the ‘eyes’ of Lady Liberty. Owing to the open doors there was much red, watered silk flying around the air, a crimson skullcap or two exited the helicopter from the rear.

This is the memory that will remain in my heart forever: the whirling white fabric of the pope’s cassock drawing attention to the elderly man comporting himself just like a little boy. John Paul had his hands placed above his eyes to facilitate a good view of the symbol of democracy and welcome. He was sporting a beaming smile as he peered out the window and said in Italian, “Beautiful, just beautiful.”

I was grateful to have been part of this and many other historical moments in the Church. However, I was very happy to have met the kind, easily pleased man behind the Holy See.