Books are my number one comfort in life. If I can't plant something right I go to the library for a gardening book. If I feel like learning something new about Portugal, I get a travel journal from Barnes and Nobles. If I want to fulfill some strange need to seek out the mysteries of an obscure African tribe, I get the book. You get the picture. When I was six and in first grade at Sacred Heart Elementary School in Oregon, I grabbed a book from our tiny school library about a Polish pope that was causing some commotion for my Italian stepdad.
Pope John Paul II was always a fixture at our family table and in our discussions on faith and politics. Even when my family was no longer going to Mass for a time in our lives, there was still talk of "John Paul". He never left our lips and our thoughts always congregated towards him whenever a new world disaster or some global act of confusion took hold of the evening news. "I wonder what the Holy Father is going to say?" We all asked this question.
That day in first grade, I remember one of the Sisters admonishing me to, "not keep this book at home" the way I had done with so many others. Libraries hate me even though I can't live without them. I never return things on time.
I loved the stories about this man. I loved that he tricked Nazis and hid Jews away from death camps. I loved that he treated the Polish communist government with about the same amount of respect. He served God first and man second, but he did both with a humility that melted everything. Halfway through my book, the pope was shot.
Every child at Sacred Heart sent our Holy Father illegible letters and stick paintings of encouragement and get well wishes. I made him an especially large card with a picture of a purple Jesus hanging on the Cross with bright orange, happy hair. I was so proud. I signed my name in two different spellings, as to not confuse him with my name's unusual "i" ending. Then, I waited.
One day, several weeks later, a letter written directly from His Holiness to our little school came. He personally thanked each and every child using their name. Each classroom got a copy so, their children's names could be read. I waited and held my breath. Nothing. No "Thanks, Tiffani". I can't say I was angry. I had a strange emotion of great embarrassment. To this day I do not know why. Maybe I thought he didn't like my purple Irish Jesus. Maybe I thought he just couldn't believe there was a "Tiffani" with an "i" out there. At any rate, my pope had forgotten me. I immediately complained to my teacher. Since she did not particularly like me (and with good reason) she did nothing. But my brother's teacher, Sister Rosalie, who also taught my class phonics, listened intently to my crying plea for her to call the pope and fix this grave oversight. She told me all I could do was pray. "He's a holy man, Tiffani. The Lord will talk to him and he will listen".
So, I prayed and I waited and eventually assumed that he would not call me up one day and say that he thought I was really cool and tell the whole class never to be mean to me and for my teacher to end all homework assignments.
I left school early that year, because my family was moving to California. Just before I left, a letter came in the mail to my school from the Vatican. It stated that the Holy Father had been informed that some children were missed in his thank you letter. My name was on that new list. Pope John Paul II was apologizing to a six year old child in a small town in Oregon, because he thought her and some of her classmates might have had their feelings hurt by the pope and he did not want that. I knew this was a guy worth holding on to.
Years passed, as the saying goes. I grew up. I lived in California when John Paul came to town. I remember thinking how special it was that he sat in Dodger Stadium where I had spent so many summers eating foot long hotdogs with my brother and watching Steve Garvey stretch like a ballerina on the field. He said Mass where I choked on big brown smog clouds. He prayed for Los Angeles and said, "God Bless the youth of America!". I went to a Protestant school at the time. They made fun of his arrival and a couple of the kids I was in class with brought "Pope on a Rope" soap to class for the teacher who had a personal vendetta against one of the holiest men alive. I stood firm in his defense and took heart in the news reports of the tens of thousands of people who gathered and slept outside to see him even for a moment.
A few years later, my family moved to Pennsylvania and the Pope came to New York. He said Mass in Central Park two hours away from my house. I watched the whole thing on TV. By then, my whole family was attending a Protestant church. People there made some of the same remarks about Catholics and their pope - how they worshipped him and how he would some day prove to be the antiChrist. Again, I argued their prejudice into the ground. I got one particularly Pope-hating Sunday school teacher removed from his post for his attacks against the Holy Father. Even my Assemblies of God pastor thought mocking this pope was going too far.
When I married, I remember telling my fiancee that I regretted not attending Mass anymore. I wished that I could get married in beautiful St. Agnes down the street. We had more than one discussion about this. It frustrated me. I went to Mass once during that time at a funeral of a friend. There were many non-Catholics there. I sat on the "Protestant side" where members of the church I was attending sat. I prayed the Mass along with the priest and it brought back fond memories of my childhood, the ones of my regal Latin parish in California, the ones of the book I had read and never returned on Pope John Paul II. Somehow, as I looked around that Catholic church, and saw all the confused Protestants not kneeling, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, sitting, loudly stumbing immediately into "For thine is the kingdom", I knew that I was home and they were not. I knew that this was right, that this place was right, that the picture of the Holy Father way out into the foyer gave me a familiarity the way old family photos do. I knew I would be back. That was a Friday. On Saturday, I went to the local public library and checked out another book about the pope. I learned a secret about him. I have never forgotten it.
My husband and I, while not reconciled with the Church yet, had a regular Catholic family started almost as soon as we said "I do". Four children later, I wish I could have more. When our oldest started kindergarten, we agreed on private school only. I always went to private school so, would my children. My husband and I went school-hunting. The Lutherans promised they would not be like the tradition-rich-Jesus-empty-Catholics, the Baptists assured us they would not be like the insane and cultish Pentacostals, the Pentacostals assured us they would not be like the "frozen chosen" mainline Christians. I hated the hunt. I hated that Christians bad-mouthed each other with such ease and venom. I went to the Catholic school down the street. At the entrance was a picture of Pope John Paul II kissing a small child. I discovered that it was the year of Jubilee.
"We will teach religion and we need proof of baptism", the principle told me. I told her that my son had been "dedicated" at a Protestant church. "I don't know what a dedication is, but a baptism at any Christian church will do. We are all One Body. Jesus removes our stain anywhere". It floored me, as my mother would say. I went straight to Barnes and Nobles and bought a collection of Pope John Paul's teachings around the world in preparation for the Year of Jubilee. I emailed all my Catholic-leary friends with a quote from the Holy Father where he insisted that "now was the day to preach the Gospel of Christ. We must go out to the highways and by-ways". I read where he said we must "preach it from the rooftops", where we must "gather in small Christian communities". I got a book by my other favorite human being too. Mother Theresa. In her book she said to preach of Jesus' love often and to listen to the words of the Holy Father closely. In one section of John Paul's book, he invited all of us that had been away to come home. I went to Mass that weekend. I haven't stopped going since that day. I walked in, I felt hugged. I sat, I knelt, I stood, I sat, I knelt, I stood. I listened to my happy Polish priest encourage us to seek until we found Jesus. He quoted the Holy Father, "Come home", he said. I did.
My husband followed. He was changed by just watching others take the Eucharist even before he could take it himself. I never pushed him to convert. It came naturally. No work on my part. He spoke often of the Holy Father and relayed memories to me about a Catholic family he had grown up with who loved their pope with great devotion. "He is a wonderful man", my husband had said even back in those early days of our engagement and I complained about our lack-luster church.
I still have those more recent books about John Paul. Just last week, my husband got a promotion that requires him to speak exclusively in Spanish. "I want a novel in Spanish. Will you go get me one?" he asked. My husband is not a reader. This excited me beyond what I can express. When I get non-readers to read I feel like the Germans might have felt when they tore down that wall.
We drove to B&N and I looked and looked. The Spanish language section was empty, except for one small book - Cruzando El Umbra De La Esperanza (Crossing the Threshold of Hope) by Pope John Paul II. It had been returned by someone and had a bent and slightly torn cover. I grabbed it anyway. "He likes non-fiction better", I reasoned. I went to the children's section. I had agreed to get the kids a new book for our religion studies, but one under $5.00 only. There was nothing Catholic, except for one book, Every Child a Light, by Pope John Paul II.
Both books rest on the top of our entertainment center now. We haven't yet started to read them. Yesterday, our Holy Father went to be with our Heavenly father. We cried all day. We mourned at Mass and prayed the Chaplait of Divine Mercy today with thoughts of his legacy in mind. Reels and reels of news stories with pictures of this great man who held such power, but who bent down on his hands and knees and kissed the ground of Auschwitz and cried for those who'd become ashes under its name flash across the TV screen. A story about a boy with no arms who played the guitar for the Pope and received his thanks and kisses and blessings made us cry again. The story about him going to Israel to ask for forgiveness for years of Christian persecution, the story about him hugging the Orthodox priest, the quiet moment revealed to the world when he kissed and forgave his would-be assassin. This is the man we lost yesterday. This is the man who had given me all those books. This is the humble servant who thanked a six year old from Oregon for her letter and apologized for not doing it sooner.
I have MS, I am sick a lot. Somehow, I got a Crucifix in the mail a few months ago that had been blessed by the Holy Father. He was still seeking me out. He touched me without ever having met me. I wore the Crucifix to his Mass yesterday. I remembered his secret. Every morning, before he said Mass, the most powerful man in the world (and no it isn't our president) got down on his knees, touched his forehead to the ground before the Crucifix of our Lord and Savior and repeated my favorite prayer of the Mass,
"Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the words and I shall be healed".
We have lost one like no other.
He was my father and yours, even if you don't accept him. The one who comes after him will have mighty shoes to fill. God is faithful though. This one will be great too. I can feel it and I pray he comes from some dark corner of the world where Jesus' light is needed in a fearsome and desperate way. The same way then Communist Poland needed a priest like that unassuming Bishop of Krakow to hold their burden before the Father - the One in Heaven.
"You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it".
Books are my comfort and the one that contains that promise reminds me of the Love that formed and motivated and created the wonderful man that was the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. That Love only comes from Jesus and that Love is what makes you stop and read about my pope even now.
by Tiffani Velez