John Paul II and America
Ambassador Ray Flynn writes that John Paul challenged America to be a moral leader . . .
I recently participated in a special and memorable discussion to commemorate the fifth anniversary Pope John Paul II’s death. In fact, the moderator acknowledged that it was the best program that he had ever participated in — quite a comment given his many years of media experience.
One of the panelists was Fr. Andrew Grelak of Chelsea, Mass. As a young man, he studied for the priesthood in Poland during Pope John Paul II’s historic 1979 visit. Poland’s Communist government at first strongly opposed the trip, but public opinion was so overwhelming that they reluctantly agreed. The emotion was overwhelming as Fr. Grelak relived the Pope’s visit with tears in his eyes.
Poland and Eastern Europe were never the same after John Paul said, “Be not afraid.” The Communist leader and head of the Polish government at the time, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev later told me the very same thing. Tanks and weapons couldn’t stand up to the truth of the Holy Father’s message.
I witnessed the same phenomenon while speaking with the striking union workers in Gdansk shipyard as armed troops surrounded us. In introducing me to the thousands of Solidarity workers, Lech Walesa said, “World opinion and truth are on our side, and the Mayor of Boston is here with us today to bring support from the freedom-loving people of the United States.”
Walesa presented me with a badge with the picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa. On the picture were two names: Solidarno (labor movement) and John Paul II. Nearly all of the striking workers wore this button. The faith these courageous workers had in Our Lady — and their confidence in the Pope — was remarkable. They not only stood up to the communist troops, but they defeated them without firing a gun. I have met and worked with many world leaders, but no one could inspire a nation like Karol Wojtyla did in 1978.
I was with the Pope many times over the years, but I always felt it wasn’t the big headline things that he did and said that made him great. It was his simple gestures of kindness and the attention he paid to ordinary people. On the TV special I mentioned in the opening paragraph, Sr. Florine Licavoli told us that she once brought a group of handicapped pilgrims to Rome, hoping to get a glimpse of John Paul at his weekly audience. But when the Pope learned of their presence, he arranged to meet them even though he was gravely ill. I personally saw his kindness with so many people, some of them troubled and sick. But that only motivated him to reach out even more.
I was in Rome reporting for national television on April 2, 2005, the day he died. I saw the outpouring of love and affection for the man I truly loved and admired. People drove all night on buses to be present at his funeral. Thousands of people — old and young — came from Austria, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia and other parts of the world. It was a truly remarkable show of love and respect for the man they called Holy Father. People lined up all night and day waiting for the opportunity to walk past his casket and say a prayer.
The day of his funeral was one of the most memorable days of my life. I spoke to three United States presidents, the future pope (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), a king, prime ministers and several world religious leaders. The genuine affection they had for Pope John Paul II was apparent. Bill Clinton and George Bush both told me the same thing. The United States had lost a great friend. Pope John Paul II loved America and its people. He knew the U.S. and its goodness.
He constantly challenged our political leaders to be a force for good. He sometimes criticized them on issues of war and peace — and certainly on the critical issue of the respect for all human life. But I can still remember Oct. 1, 1979, as if it were yesterday. While standing on the runway at Logan Airport in Boston, the Pope said, “America has opened her heart to me. And on my part I come to you — America — with sentiments of friendship, reverence and esteem. I come as one who already knows you and loves you, as one who wishes you to fulfill completely your noble destiny of service to the world.
“Permit me to express my sentiments in the lyrics of your own song, ‘America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.’
“May the peace of the Lord be with you always, America.”
Pope John Paul II challenged America to be a moral leader. I’m happy to report that millions of Americans wake up every morning and try to live up to that challenge. Pope John Paul II will always be part of America.
Raymond L. Flynn is the former United States Ambassador to the Holy See, Mayor of Boston, and bestselling author of “The Accidental Pope” and “Pope John Paul II: A Personal Portrait of the Pope and the Man.”