Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 11, 2005
MacNeil remembers JP2 closeup
'You had a sense he was looking into your soul,' recalls retired archbishop
By LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WCR News Editor
His own cobalt blue eyes dance with delighted remembrance.
And Edmonton Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil replies to a query about Pope John Paul's eyes.
"Sharp. Intense blue. Laser sharp. You knew he was looking right at you and you had a sense he was looking right into your soul."
The words are said with warmth, admiration, comfort.
And this is the same tenor of emotion that weaves throughout the Edmonton's archbishop emeritus' recounting of his 30-year-plus relationship with the just deceased Holy Father.
But isn't the public perception that of Church officials quaking with fear, wondering what judgments were being made in Rome, what chastisements would be hurled at their next ad limina visit to the pope?
A beaming MacNeil washes these fallacies away with a vivid retelling of his own relationship with God's emissary to the world.
So about those every-five-year visits to Rome. Does the archbishop sit across from the pope and confess to just what is really going on in his archdiocese?
The desk was bare
When MacNeil sat across from Pope John Paul, the desk surface was bare of files, notes, legal documents. Just one thing sat on that table top.
"So if he did not know where St. Paul was, I could point it out to him."
The agenda was up to the visiting archbishop.
"If I wanted to spend the 15 minutes complaining that the parish priests were unfaithful, I could. If I wanted to tell about all the good and wonderful things happening in the parish, I could do that too. It was all up to me."
The attitude from the pope towards him came from St. Peter. "I come to confirm your ministry. I come to encourage you, support you."
MacNeil flourished under the warmth and guidance of this caring, elder brother.
Dinner with His Holiness
Dinners with groups of bishops from specific areas had that same laissez-faire quality.
Conversations amongst the diners themselves were commonplace and the relaxed host was there to chat afterwards.
Dinner - or any meal for the pope - was for eating.
"He relished eating," says MacNeil. And when he dined, he was not looking for sparkling dinner conversation. His attitude was, 'My primary purpose here is to be fed.'"
And this underlines one of the pope's greatest strengths. The ability to be totally present, to be in the moment, to tackle the task at hand with pure concentration.
This skill and discipline no doubt came from his early days when he trained - successfully - as a dramatic actor. He knew his lines. He remembered people - not just their names, but their context - specific facts that were important to them.
MacNeil's and the pope's paths first crossed in the mid-'70s when he was the cardinal of Krakow. They were at an international meeting of Catholic university presidents that included global bishops. Karol Josef Wojtyla represented Poland, MacNeil Canada.
MacNeil recalls, "We had a good conversation."
They met again and he and Calgary's Bishop Paul O' Byrne chatted about bringing Polish priests and seminarians to Alberta.
Fast forward to 1979, the year after Karol Joseph became Pope John Paul II.
MacNeil approached him and before he could say anything, the newly-minted pope said, "Oh, it is nice to see you again."
"What an incredible memory!" says MacNeill shaking his head in wonderment.
"But Bishop O'Byrne and I were always together and in a sense we were like Mutt and Jeff. I think he recognized us coming a mile away."
Years followed and MacNeil and the pope met many times. The previous president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops had arranged for John Paul to visit Canada in 1983 and, as the new president, MacNeil was determined to make it happen.
Then came the 1981 assassination attempt.
MacNeil met with the still-recovering pope his first day back in his office.
"His face was as white as this," says MacNeil as he waves a pure white envelope in front of the journalist.
After the niceties, MacNeil launched into his pitch for the Canadian trip.
"I am just alive and now you want me to still come to Canada?" queried the pope. "Okay. But 1984, not 1983."
The cross-Canada trip happened and MacNeil met the weary pope in the early evening at Namao airport after the papal dignitary had spent a hectic day in Winnipeg.
"He was so gracious," says MacNeil.
Then came the procession down 97th Street to St. Joseph's Basilica. Evening Prayer. Arrival at the Grey Nuns' Centre. Meet the sisters. Catch a bite to eat.
And when MacNeil showed him into his sleeping quarters, he pointed out two sheets of young people's pictures with their pr‚cis stories beside them lying on a table. The junior and high school students had won a contest and would be lining the corridor as the pope left the next morning.
"This is your homework," said MacNeil with a chuckle
"Homework?" queried the pope.
And so the next morning, the students were there as the pope left.
And at the second youth - a Chilean - he stopped and said, "Your uncle is a political prisoner and is still in prison."
The young student and his parents standing beside him burst into tears.
John Paul had indeed done his homework. He could have dashed by. But he didn't.
And as the waiting protocol and security people became more and more upset, Pope John Paul spoke to the young people and acknowledged their stories.
"That is a beautiful demonstration of his respect for each person," underlines MacNeil.
Winds scuttled afternoon plans to go to a chalet in Marmot Basin and a glum pontiff turned down the idea of a walk.
Glancing down from a balcony at the omnipresent soldiers and policemen, he said, "Look at all the soldiers. Look at all the policemen. What has the pope done?"
But during lunch, MacNeil began talking about Elk Island Park and the pope perked up.
MacNeil called the security folk over and said, "The Holy Father and I are going to Elk Island Park."
"You can't do that," they replied. "It's not secure."
"No one - maybe not even God - knows about it (the just-planned trip)," retorted MacNeil.
Point made. The pope loved the park's peace and restorative nature. He walked. Read. Prayed the rosary.
"I am just alive and now you want me to still come to Canada?"
- Pope John Paul
Remember the buffalo
And years after when he and MacNeil would meet, he would ask, "How are the buffalo?"
It is easy for MacNeil to salute the pope's many positive points.
"What one person could communicate with so many other people?" he asks as he tells of hearing him on the radio speaking Dogrib in Fort Simpson.
Or his loosening of communism's grip in Europe.
"(Mikhail) Gorbachev said he was the pivotal point," recalls MacNeil.
"To have such a revolution that was bloodless . . .".
MacNeil says it does not surprise him there are people who disagreed with John Paul, didn't like him, called him stubborn.
"But he does listen," retorts MacNeil.
The archbishop thinks that, in retrospect, we will be able to see how John Paul changed and evolved over the years.
And MacNeil reminds those who accused John Paul of not taking action on certain matters of John XXIII's response to that accusation: "I am just the pope, not God."
Healing is needed
Still MacNeil is asked, "Is there healing needed?"
A seriousness takes over as he says, "Oh yes. All those people who feel victimized by the priests or the bishops or residential schools, healing is needed there.
"All kind of women feel disregarded and that the Church is a club for men.
"Lots of people feel the need for healing, whether or not this was caused by the Church, by the pope."
Yet, says MacNeil, "There are hundreds of thousands who feel that the pope was their friend. We are giving so many kudos to this man. What a fantastic individual he was. Keep in mind, when he went into the conclave, he wasn't on anyone's radar.
"How could it possibly be that everyone did not recognize this man from the beginning.
At the beginning, it was between two cardinals. Not him. Not at all.
"If we had to make that choice, we would never have made that choice. It was in the hands of God.
MacNeil runs over the clich‚s abounding in the memorial tributes for John Paul
"A person of integrity. A man of God. A prayerful person. Someone very close to God. Someone you could trust.
"And while saying all that, he was not perfect."
And the grieving friend who knows he is already missing his elder spiritual brother confides, "I can't help but think if St. Peter was talking with him, and said, 'Now Karol, if you had another chance, would you have done things a little differently? he would say, 'Yes.'"
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.