Legates recount meeting with Saint John Paul II and how he touched their lives . . .
As the world’s attention turned toward Rome for the April 27 canonization of Pope John Paul II, Legatus members reminisced on the profound effect the new saint had on Legatus’ founding and growth.
John Paul’s prophetic call for the New Evangelization — one of the hallmarks of his 26-year papacy — has led Legates to think of creative ways to live out this call in the workplace, as well as in their families and communities. Often a meeting with the late pontiff confirmed a Legate’s Catholic faith or inspired a deeper commitment to Jesus Christ.
Holy Spirit moment
In the case of Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, his first meeting with St. John Paul II inspired him to create Legatus. Monaghan had always been a great admirer of the Holy Father because of his Polish background.
“I was brought up in an orphanage with Polish nuns and lots of Polish kids,” he explained. “Because of this, I always felt an affinity for all things Polish.”
Monaghan met the new saint for the first time on May 7, 1987. At the time, Monaghan was in Venice, Italy, for an international meeting of YPO — the Young Presidents’ Organization.
Cardinal Edmund Szoka, then-archbishop of Detroit, asked Monaghan if he wanted to attend a private Mass with the Pope, so he made the hop from Venice to Rome.
“During Mass, I received the Host directly on my tongue from Pope John Paul II, and he stood 12 inches away from me,” Monaghan said. “His eyes looked into my eyes. I will never forget that moment.”
After Mass, the 30 people who had attended Mass went to the papal library. The Pope greeted each person, spoke to them and gave them a rosary. About 45 minutes later, Monaghan got the inspiration to create Legatus based on the YPO model.
Bob and Nancy Gunderson, members of Legatus’ Milwaukee Chapter, went on a Legatus pilgrimage in 1999. During a Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 6, the Legatus group was brought forward for a photo with the Pope. Nancy was placed right next to the Holy Father.
“I knelt down to be at his level,” she said. “His arm was on the arm rest and I grabbed his arm.”
When he looked up at Nancy, she told him that everyone in Milwaukee was praying for him and that they all loved him. He smiled at her.
“It was such a thrill to be in the presence of someone you knew to be a saint,” she said.
Mike and Lynne Joseph, members of the Orange County Chapter, were standing right behind John Paul that day. Lynne reached out and put her hand on the Pope’s shoulder.
“It was a thrill just getting close enough to him to be able to pat him on the shoulder as he sat in his chair under a canopy looking out at the throngs of worshippers who filled St. Peter’s Square,” Mike said. “John Paul’s health was definitely in decline at this point. He didn’t say very much, but being in his presence was a very moving experience.”
Father Joe Cocucci, assistant chaplain for Legatus’ Wilmington Chapter, met John Paul as a young priest in 1983 during a general audience in St. Peter’s Square. When the Holy Father came down to shake hands, security called the young priest forward.
“I grabbed my friend Dr. Henry Bender, and we moved to the front row,” Fr. Cocucci explained. “When the Pope got to me, I got nervous and began to speak in Italian.”
His friend Henry and his wife had foster children back in the U.S., including a little girl with developmental problems named Sara. Doctors were having a hard time helping her.
“When the Pope got to Henry, he asked him to please pray for ‘my daughter Sara.’ The Pope replied slowly, ‘I will pray for Sara,’” Fr. Cocucci said.
Over the next year, Sara’s condition inexplicably improved — astounding all doctors. “We attributed her improvement to Pope John Paul II’s prayers,” said Fr. Cocucci.
The name of Jesus
Prominent author and speaker Ralph Martin, president of Renewal Ministries and a member of Legatus’ Ann Arbor Chapter, met John Paul half a dozen times. In the late 1970s, Martin spent an evening with the Holy Father at the invitation of Brussels Cardinal Leo Suenens. The conversation revolved around renewal in the Church, Martin explained. The Pope asked each of those present to share their testimony.
“Then, at the end, he gave his testimony, saying that when he was a little boy, his father asked him to pray to the Holy Spirit every single day and ask God for guidance,” Martin explained. “He said he had been praying to the Holy Spirit every day just like his father taught him.”
Another profound meeting came in 1994. Martin had an audience with the Pope and presented him with his new book, The Catholic Church at the End of an Age: What is the Spirit Saying?
“When I gave it to him, he said, ‘I read it already,’” Martin said. “I almost fell over at that point, and then he said, ‘Ralph what is the Spirit saying to the Church?’
“I knew he didn’t want the whole 300-page answer, so I said, ‘Holy Father, I think what the Spirit is mainly saying to the Church is Jesus.’ And then the Holy Father took my hand and he said, ‘Jesus.’ I said, ‘Jesus,’ and he said, ‘Jesus.’ We just stood there for a couple of minutes saying the name of Jesus together, and it was just a moment of profound communion in the Lord.”
Doctor to a saint
Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, a member of Legatus’ San Juan Capistrano Chapter, went to Rome in August 2000 to volunteer as a doctor with the Knights of Malta. During one of the general audiences, he noticed how bad John Paul’s health was. As a neurologist, he wondered if the Pope’s Parkinson’s disease was being treated correctly and voiced this concern to a friend, Monsignor Vittorio Formenti.
The next day, a group of Swiss Guards found Fortanasce at a clinic near the Vatican and asked him to follow them. Within minutes, he was introduced to John Paul’s doctors.
“We spoke for half an hour and went over the Pope’s X-rays and medications,” Fortanasce said. “As I was walking out the door, I was motioned to go up a corridor. I walked into a room and found Pope John Paul II sitting by the window, reading a book.”
John Paul asked Fortanasce about his mission. The Legate told him that his life’s mission was to defend life — stopping things like human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research.
“The Pope told me that the real problem was that man believes he is God, and that man is afraid of death because he didn’t have God,” said Fortanasce. “And so people want to do everything possible to postpone death, even at the cost of taking another person’s life.”
John Paul told Fortanasce not to give up and not to expect people to listen.
Fortanasce ended up recommending another medication and an appropriate exercise regimen. The Vatican “paid” him by sending him holy water blessed by the Pope.
All of these Legates said they knew Pope John Paul II would be canonized one day.
“He was my No. 1 hero in the world,” said Monaghan. “He had a presence. He was a man’s man, an intellect and an actor.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.