I have a very Roman heart.
I often say that when I talk about the Pope…any Pope.
For whatever reason, the Lord has ordained that I walk on the Christian pilgrimage very near his friend(s), Peter. In particular, the three Popes of my lifetime have been awesome witnesses of Jesus Christ to me.
It started with Pope St. John Paul II. This pilgrim Pope visited my native land, Venezuela, twice during his pontificate. Both times my grandfather was in the planning committee for the visit. I was only four when the saint made his second trip, so I don’t remember meeting him. But from my family I know that we attended a small audience where this holy Pope who so loved children blessed and embraced me and my siblings. Thanks be to God, I have a picture of that moment!
The suffering Pope John Paul witnessed to the life-giving sacrificial love that Jesus Christ has for each of us, especially when we suffer united with Him. In 2005, I remember sitting in a classroom in my middle school in Long Island, shocked and sad and yet peaceful as I watched this great man’s funeral on TV. After his death, this white rock of prayer remains present to me, my loved ones, and the whole Church, ever interceding for us.
Pope Benedict XVI taught and teaches me who Jesus is and how much He loves us. His writings and his preaching flow from the deep faith, hope, and love that the Lord has given him. As such, they contain and transmit some of the infinite riches of God’s Wisdom. In high school, I read the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth series. Granted, the book was way over my head, but I remember devouring it. From it, I learned that Jesus Christ is the center of history and ought to be the center of my own life. A few years later, in between Holy Week liturgies at Notre Dame, I returned to Pope Benedict and read volume two, his reflection on Christ’s Paschal mystery. That encounter with our now Pope Emeritus showed me how much the Church’s liturgy has shaped his theology. Through this Holy Father’s witness, both in writing and practice, I learned to love the liturgy because I came to understand it as a privileged access-point to the saving mysteries of Jesus Christ.
I spent my junior year of college in Bologna, Italy. Within that year, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Pope Benedict announced his resignation. The world was shocked, as was the Church on earth. I was distraught. And from the way people were reacting all around me, I thought Italy was going to sink into the Mediterranean. But as I prayed with the Church for the Holy Father, and as I tuned in to listen to him during his last weeks, I grew peaceful with and deeply grateful for his momentous gesture. His great humility in acknowledging his weakness before the world and the Church and in surrendering his position of authority was a remarkable sign against a world where those who have power tend to cling to it selfishly. More importantly, his unshakeable confidence in God’s Providence and in His loving care over His Church was a profound final lesson from this holy teacher.
Pope Francis had me from buona sera. I didn’t know who he was when he was elected. I was happy he was from my home continent, from a 500-year-old Church that has much good to bring to the Church universal. I was charmed by his (very Italian) gestures. I loved his smile and his funny Argentine accent. However, what most touched me was his preaching of Jesus Christ. Soon after his election, I found myself in St. Peter’s Square with many other pilgrims listening to the Holy Father exhort the Christian faithful to go to the peripheries of human existence announcing the Good News. Listening to our Holy Father preach the Paschal mystery that Holy Week and worshiping God in the Eucharistic sacrifice together with him convicted me of my vocation to become a preacher and priest of Jesus Christ.
In the years since, I’ve been able to hold unto those beautiful first impressions that Pope Francis made on me. I also remember something he said early on and repeats incessantly. He said, “I am a sinner, whom the Lord looked upon with mercy.” When he says this, the Holy Father teaches us something about being the Successor of St. Peter. He teaches us that the Lord in His Wisdom chose weak men to tend to His flock, care for His Mysteries, and preach His Gospel. And as he teaches us this, by his word and his life, Pope Francis asks us for our prayers.
So as we approach Holy Week, and as we remember how the first Pope entered triumphantly with Christ into Jerusalem, had his feet washed by the Lord, received Him in the first Mass, followed Him from a distance, denied Him thrice, wept for his sins, saw the empty tomb, believed in the Resurrection, was inflamed by the Spirit, and preached Christ to the ends of the world, let us be close to and pray for our Holy Father. May the Lord strengthen him to serve Him faithfully as Peter did. And may the Lord grant us to walk omnes et semper cum Petro per Mariam ad Iesum (see The Forge, 647).
Image: Young Br. Josemaría and his family with Pope St. John Paul II.