Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 13, 2003
An image of the mercy of Jesus
By GLEN ARGAN
Pope John Paul had an incredible way of relating to bishops, Edmonton's retired Archbishop Joseph MacNeil told the WCR.
"I believe every single bishop in the world believes he knows the pope and the pope knows him," MacNeil said in an interview reflecting on the pontiff.
The pope has the "utmost respect" for every single person.
During the bishops' ad limina visits that they make to the Vatican every five years, the pope meets with every single bishop. He would tell them, "I've come to support you in your ministry. I've come as an elder brother to confirm you in your ministry."
During those one-on-one visits, the pope's desk was always clear, MacNeil said. There was no file of letters complaining about the diocese to which he was going to draw the bishop to task.
"He tries to treat us as friends. He's basically saying that's how you should treat your own priests, your own people."
As vice-president and then president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, MacNeil was at the centre of negotiations to bring Pope John Paul to Canada in 1984.
Shortly after Pope John Paul was elected in 1978, he made plans to visit Ireland and the United States. It was a new experience to have a pontiff travelling the globe freely.
"So we decided, 'Why don't we ask?' And the answer was 'yes.'"
The pope's original intention was to visit Canada in 1983, but the gunshot wound he suffered in the abdomen set things back a year.
When the Canadian bishops visited him in 1981, it was clear that he had been close to death. "He said, 'I will come to Canada. But not in '83."
When the pope did come, his visit was to include a visit to the Tonquin Valley in Jasper National Park. But at the end of the Edmonton Mass, he was told it was too windy in the mountains and they wouldn't be able to land a helicopter.
So, over lunch at Government House, MacNeil tried to raise the pope's interest in spending the free afternoon at Elk Island National Park. At first he wasn't interested, but eventually he said, "OK, let's go."
MacNeil drove the pope and a Polish doctor to the park the long way, through Lamont, to avoid being followed. "The pope was out there the good part of the afternoon and he really thoroughly enjoyed himself."
Late in the afternoon, the pope looked for a bench on which to sit down. MacNeil found him one and out of the pocket of his coat, the pope pulled a breviary. "It showed that prayer is a very, very important part of his life."
"He was intrigued by all kinds of things." When a helicopter took them to the Mass site north of the city, he was impressed that ordinary working people were able to buy houses large enough to raise a family.
"And there was a kind of spontaneity about the man." When MacNeil told Vatican officials he would like the pope to meet local interfaith leaders in the sanctuary of St. Joseph Basilica, he was given a firm "no." At the end of the service, the pope had to process directly out of the altar area.
But when, during the service, the archbishop whispered to the pope if he would like to meet the local leaders, the pope was enthused and went over and met all of them.
"The pope had lots of enthusiasm, lots of energy. He met people so easily," MacNeil said.
"After that, almost anytime I would go to Rome, he would refer to his visit and details of his visit."
MacNeil met the future Pope John Paul twice before he became pope. Once was in the early 1970s at a meeting of Catholic university representatives from around the world.
Then, a year after the pope's election, MacNeil was ready to introduce himself to the new pontiff. "Before I had a chance, he said, 'It's great to see you again.'"
MacNeil seemed surprised, but the pope said, "The Polish College." The archbishop replied that he was staying at the Canadian College during his visit to Rome. But the pope said, "No, you came and visited me at the Polish College in 1974."
MacNeil had forgotten the encounter, but the pope remembered.
The archbishop said that before Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became pope, he saw him as someone very intelligent, very prayerful.
"But if somebody had asked me, 'Do you think he'll become the next pope?' Well I didn't put two and two together."
"His commitment to the will of God is so clear, so obvious. That's his life, his being, to be in union with God."
"But you don't get the impression that he's so committed to God's will that he couldn't smile."
The pope had the way of seeing the importance of both God's mercy and moral absolutes at the same time, he said. "In a way, you could say he's the proclaimer of the God of mercy. He's also the proclaimer of absolutes."
"In so many ways, he's the image of Jesus Christ. Jesus was the most merciful and so is the pope."