Pope John Paul was not the first pope I'd "known;" I was born during the reign of John XXIII, and between him and John Paul there were two other popes. But John Paul II was the first pope I'd "known" since my conversion to Catholicism nine years ago, and therein lies the story.
I was baptized a Presbyterian at Knox Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. When I was a teen, I was confirmed a Congregationalist in the small town of Hancock, Minnesota. (I always liked to joke that Congregationalism was for Presbyterians who lived in a town with no Presbyterian church.) Unlike many Protestants, I don't recall any particular hatred or suspicion of Catholics. Perhaps that was because we weren't an overly religious family. We were believers, make no mistake, but we didn't attend church regularly. Had we done so, perhaps there would have been a stronger feeling there.
Even at a young age, the seeds must have been there. I remember when I was 10 or 11, telling a friend of mine that I envied the Catholics because they had outward gestures, such as the Sign of the Cross, to indicate their faith. "We don't have anything like that," I said. Where did I come up with something like that at that age? Must have been something I saw on TV. Something like the Midnight Masses I used to watch on TV on Christmas Eve. Why I chose the Mass I don't know; there were often other church services from which to choose. The church had abandoned Latin by that time (I'm not that old!), but in particular I remember a year in the early 70s watching the Mass from Chicago, and being intrigued with the cantor, dressed in a tuxedo, who was leading the congregation. I never liked folk music, so it must have been more formal than that, although it would have been around the right time for that kind of liturgical rubbish. Once again though, the seeds must have been planted.
When Pope Paul VI died in 1978, I was taken by the ceremony and the news coverage. Now, that might be explained by my being a news junkie in general, plus my absolute love of pomp and pagentry; but maybe there more to it than that. I watched the motorcade returning the Pope's body to the Vatican from Castel Gandalfo. I watched the funeral and the beginning of the conclave. I even read Fr. Andrew Greeley's columns from Rome that appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. (Well, give me a break on that one; how was I to know that Greeley was a liberal, someone to whom I wouldn't give the time of day if I'd really known what he was up to!) I missed the election of John Paul I, however; like so many I was taken in by the confusion as to whether the smoke was black or white. NBC said it was black, meaning no pope, and so I left the house. When I returned, the new pope was standing on the balcony. I slapped my head; things like this didn't happen very often. When would I get another chance?
Sadly, it turned out to be the next month. Again I watched the coverage; only now we had moved into early autumn, and my freshman year at college. I lived at home in those years, and coming home after my only class of the day had ended early, my mother told me they'd elected a new pope, but hadn't announced the name yet. I turned on the TV and watched Peter Jennings covering it from St. Peter's Square - humorously, I thought that God had taken mercy on me and allowed me to see this one. John Paul II came out; my mom, who was in the other room, asked what kind of a man he looked like. "He looks different from the last one," I remember saying (or something like this), "but there's something about him - he looks like a good man."
I think this was when it really took hold. I watched the extensive coverage of the papal trip to America. (I watched most of the masses even though I might not have understood everything; I even chose to watch the Sunday mass rather than football, which at that time was really something for me.) I bought the book Pontiff, which told the story of the conclaves and the 1981 assassination attempt; I read Greeley's book The Making of the Popes 1978 (already starting to learn his agenda), and Martin's The Last Conclave (which I never really did get; if I read it now I probably would). I even asked for and got for Christmas Cheetham's Keepers of the Keys (a dense book; I have to admit I never got through it). That's a lot of Catholic reading for someone who wasn't a Catholic yet. And of course although National Review was never a Catholic magazine per se, there's no question it exposed me to even more Catholic thought from Catholic writers. I still didn't go to church regularly during those years; but whenever I did, it was usually a special occasion or with friends, and it was always to a Catholic church. I started to think that it might be nice to be Catholic, that this was something I could live with. For a brief time I considered the charge that Catholics worshipped false idols (mostly because of confession and the priest "father" thing), but even when I thought it might make it impossible for me to convert, I remember feeling it more with sadness and regret than anything else.
When Judie and I met and married, the situation began to change. Judie's family was Catholic, but she had left the church. She knew of my interest, however (I was probably talking about it frequently, as I do so many things; and it was probably getting on her nerves, as so many of my obsessions do), and to satisfy it she suggested we buy a copy of the then-new Catechism that had come out. We also bought Patrick Madrid's book Surprised by Truth, which told the conversion stories of new Catholics. I started watching the daily Mass on EWTN, and Mother Angelica after that. It was fascinating to think that this was a Church that had services more often than once a week.
To make a long story short, she read the books before I did, and thanks to the influence of JPII, Mother Teresa and Mother Angelica, she started to move back to the Church. And when she did, she brought me along as a willing participant. Nine years ago I had one of those big days that even priests get excited about - I celebrated my first confession, confirmation, first communion, and the blessing of our marriage in the Church, all on the same day. It was the biggest day dear old Father Pouliot had had in a long time!
I was fascinated with Catholicism, in many although not all ways because of John Paul. But did I ever say "I want to join the Church because of him?" Maybe not in so many words. And yet he was there all the time. A couple of years before I was to convert I told some friends at a party that he was the man I most admired in the world. I read books and articles about him and found how he was standing up to the forces of liberalism and modernism, and I liked it. I had an instant and immense respect for him because of his preaching on the "gospel of life." I started to read more about the Church's explaination on confession and birth control and while I didn't agree with it at first (that would come later), I respected it and understood why the Church taught it. John Paul II was a great man and a great pope; he changed the Church in many, many ways, mostly for the better. What he did for me personally was build a Church I felt I could join. Because of that, I took the time and effort to learn what the Church taught. I didn't become Catholic because of hero worship; I became Catholic because by watching John Paul, I knew what the Church stood for.
Was he perfect? Hey, he was human. Of course he wasn't. And neither is the Church. There were times, when confronting liturgical abuses or the priest sex scandal, when I was tempted to ask why the Holy Father wasn't doing more. Someone asked me that once, after Liturgiam authenticam came out - "Why doesn't he kick them out of the Church?" I thought about it for a moment, and finally came up with, "Perhaps he wants his successor to make the decision. To let him establish his own authority, instead of enforcing a decision he didn't make." That's just a theory of mine, but it would be like John Paul - not trying to avoid the decision, but feeling that it would be much more difficult for the next pope, with people saying, "Sure John Paul wanted it this way, but he's gone now; what's this new guy going to do?" Maybe I'm wrong, but once that thought came to me, I had no desire to second-guess the pope. As you've known from my writings, I didn't entirely agree with him on the death penalty, but that has more to do with the penal situation here than it does with JPII's general philosophy. As for the war in Iraq: I'm more inclined to think the war is just, but he'll probably be right about that as well.
Would I have come in to the Church had Paul VI still been pope? Would Judie have come back? I don't know. I heard an explanation on TV today that maybe comes as close as I can to describing it: when you meet your wife you're initially drawn in by her beauty, but it's her brains and her personality that keep you there. So it was with John Paul - his charisma reeled me in, his teachings (which were the teachings of the Church) were what made me a keeper. But that's kind of how a Fisherman operates, isn't it?
What I do know is that he was the pope when I converted, and for that he will always be my pope, the pope I love, the pope I "knew."