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John Paul II
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The first time
I saw John Paul II was in the summer of 1983. I was just 11 years old, jammed in
a crowd with a bunch of my fellow sweaty Italians.
standing in St. Peter’s Square, waving to the man in the white outfit as he
drove by us in the popemobile.
“Pretty cool,” I thought to myself. And then it was time to get some gelato.
Over the years, I saw John Paul II hundreds of times in that square.
When I lived in Rome, my apartment was only a few blocks away. If I had some
free time on a Wednesday morning, I’d stop by the general audience. If I was
around on a Sunday at noon, I’d head over for the Angelus. I could use all the
papal blessings I could get.
Some nights I'd just sit in the piazza by myself and I'd see the lights on the
top floor of the papal apartments were lit. I pictured him working, or praying,
or whatever he was doing...and it was cool to know he was there. Just me and
Of course, he had no idea I was there.
He was The Rock I could count on. The one I could always stop by and say hello
to. Granted I was saying hello with tens of thousands of others, but he always
felt like “my pope.”
In retrospect, I think I took John Paul for granted. Maybe we all did.
For people my age, he was the pope. Always had been pope. Always would be.
Intellectually we knew otherwise; but in reality you say the word “pope” and
only one man came to mind.
So as I stood in St. Peter’s Square on April 4 of last year, I was dealing with
a concept I wasn’t sure how to grasp: This would be the last time I’d ever see
our pope in St. Peter’s Square.
For those of us in Rome during those days, we weren’t inundated with media
coverage. I wasn’t watching TV or reading newspapers or visiting blogs. I was
just there, in St. Peter’s Square, trying to take it all in.
When I met him, in 1999, the last thing I said to him was “Thank You, Holy
And now, as he passed by one last time, I only wanted to say one more time:
“Thank you, Holy Father.”
The person I was saying “thank you” to wasn’t just John Paul the Great. He
wasn’t just the Vicar of Christ. I didn’t think about the number of countries he
traveled to or encyclicals he wrote or saints he canonized.
He was Karol Wojtyla. And he had passed away. A man who gave his life to service
of the Church. And that’s who I was remembering.
All the times I'd seen him riding around here. Waving. Smiling. Blessing.
Now, sadly, I saw him being carried right towards us.
The emotions I felt that day were powerful. And as the years go by, there’s a
piece of me that is afraid of forgetting about “our pope.” And as much as I love
Benedict, and I do, I also hope the emotions my entire generation felt towards
John Paul II never go away.
“John Paul II, we love you!” is what we used to yell to him.
Sure, it was a clever thing to say. But I just want to add a final line to that
rhyme: John Paul II, we love you. We still do. And we thank you.
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Emmy-award-winner Lino Rulli is a television host and reporter based in
Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is also host of
a nationally syndicated radio show geared to young adults.