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Bishop John C. Nienstedt
Bishop John C. Nienstedt

Parish Directory

Reflections on Pope John Paul II


by The Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt

Bishop of New Ulm

 

        I first met Pope John Paul II two nights after the election of his immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul I, at the Villa Stritch in Rome. I had accompanied my bishop, Cardinal John Dearden, to the funeral of Pope Paul VI and served as his secretary as he awaited the conclave. Afterwards, Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia invited Cardinals Wyszynski and Wojtyla for dinner at the home where the American Cardinals were staying.

        When they entered the room, the focus immediately fell on Cardinal Wyszynski who was tall and extremely stately in his bearing. He was the Primate of Poland, who had even gone to jail for defending the Polish people against the atheistic totalitarianism of the Communists. Being a priest secretary, I was standing outside the circle that hovered around this great man. I looked over and saw the other Cardinal standing by himself also outside the center of attention. I walked over and introduced myself. He responded with a single word, “Wojtyla.” A little over a month later, he would be Pope and the following years I would be assigned to the English desk of his Secretariat of State.

       There are so many fond memories that I have of this tirelessly dedicated, yet remarkably engaging spiritual leader. For twenty-six years now, he has been the best known and most recognized moral voice in the world. He has traveled the globe in imitation of St. Paul the Apostle. He is the last of the great bishops who gave shape to the Second Vatican Council, which in turn gave focus to every aspect of his papacy. I truly believe that he will be remembered as one of the greatest popes in history.

        In these recent years, Pope John Paul II prepared us spiritually to begin anew with the Jubilee celebrations inaugurating the Third Millennium. Since my coming to New Ulm, he has declared the “Year of the Rosary,” urging us to contemplate the face of Jesus through the eyes of Mary, and the “Year of the Eucharist,” again contemplating the Presence of Jesus in the “breaking of the bread.” He has likewise given a new dignity to the meaning of suffering as we watched his physical stature diminish, even as his passionate spirit for preaching the Gospel continued to radiate.

        One of my most favorite recollections was his arrival to World Youth Day in Toronto. By then, the muscles in his face had become taut and he was not easily able to smile. But once he began to greet that throng of thousands and thousands of young people and heard their joyous response, the most beautiful smile appeared on his face which said more than words could express the love, the hope, the confidence and pride he had in that future generation of Catholics.

        I feel singularly blessed in having known this great Pope, through my assignment to his Vatican household, in his calling me to be a bishop and in entrusting me with shepherding the Diocese of New Ulm. I cannot imagine knowing another Pope as well. To say that I will miss him is a tremendous understatement.

        But for twenty-six years now, Pope John Paul II has told us over and over and over again to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. And he has been the best example to us as one who practiced exactly what he preached. No doubt a merited crown awaits him in heaven, but what I believe will be his greatest joy will be seeing the Lord Jesus face to face. May the Mother of God, whom he loved so dearly, come to meet him and take him to her Son where he will find eternal life.

 

 


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