What I Have Seen and Heard
Published: April 7, 2005
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory meets with his friend, Pope John Paul II, during a visit to the Vatican. The archbishop visited the Holy Father on numerous occasions during his term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
I have received so many verbal, written and electronic expressions of condolence and sympathy at the death of Pope John Paul II. Each in its own way has been a source of great comfort and helped me to realize the extent of this great man’s outreach and influence well beyond the Catholic Church. These expressions of sympathy came from civic officials and ordinary citizens. They came from Catholics and Christians from other traditions. They came from our Jewish and Islamic friends as well as from people who did not identify a specific religious heritage. They all convey the respect that people from every walk of life had for the Holy Father and their gracious desire to comfort their Catholic friends during this moment of sorrow and mourning.
Several of these communications included an unusual reference that gave me a strange and wonderful feeling. They referred to the loss of “my friend” Pope John Paul II. When I first read this reference to the Holy Father as a friend of mine, I hesitated even to imagine of the Holy Father as a personal friend. At first, I thought of it as an inappropriate suggestion. In all of the many times that I was fortunate enough to be in his presence and to enjoy his hospitality, I never felt that I was visiting a friend.
Yet, in truth he always treated me as a friend and a brother. So part of my grieving is really at the loss of a friend. And those who had the good judgment to remind me that the Holy Father had proven himself a friend in my life and in the lives of countless others helped me understand why his death is such a deeply felt reality for me and for so many others.
Jesus reminded his Apostles that he chose to call them his friends even though they could never deserve that title. The Holy Father was a friend to me and to so many others. Above all, he was a friend to humanity. We all now feel the loss of a friend and a father. Those sentiments make it difficult for us to engage in the ranking of his accomplishments or initiatives. How does one rank a friend’s qualities? How does one describe a father’s best traits?
Friends are important because they touch our lives in so many wonderful ways that we shun even imagining life without them. Fathers are so central to our identity that we cannot begin to list all of their many gifts or to put into a ranking the many ways that they love us or care for us.
There are many challenges that face the Church throughout the world and locally—evangelization of those who do not know Christ, the re-evangelization of cultures and societies that have succumbed to or been severely weakened by the secularization that has grown so powerful in today’s world, the overwhelming needs of the poor, the religious and moral formation of the young, the defense of those who are weak, vulnerable, and defenseless.
Let us pray that the Cardinals will open themselves up to the grace of the Holy Spirit to a wise selection of a new pontiff, who will bring his own gifts and talents to these tasks. Because God has created all of us with unique qualities and gifts, the new pope will differ from Pope John Paul II, but he will also build upon a solid foundation that has been laid by a great man who gave of himself tirelessly for the promotion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the building up of the Lord’s flock. The next pope will inherit many problems, but he will also come into a Church that has known the gentle yet strong hand of a dear friend and of a very loving father. May the Lord Jesus reward Pope John Paul II for his extraordinary faithful service to Christ’s Bride, the Church.