Saints Change Everything

Who can believe it is only twelve years since the death of our beloved Saint John Paul II?

Those of us who are middle-aged and older will also remember exactly where we were when we heard 39 years ago that a Polish cardinal had been elected Pope!

I was in a retreat house in England. When Pope Paul VI had died on the Feast of the Transfiguration, I was on pilgrimage on Lough Dherg. The priest mentioned in passing at the end of his sermon, ‘Oh, and by the way, the Pope died today…”!

A lady I interviewed twelve years after the election of Karol Wojtyla (and who became a dear friend) remembered exactly were she was when the news came out that the Archbishop of Krakow had been elected to the See of Peter. Irina Ilovaiskaya Alberti (she had married an Italian diplomat) was by then widowed. She was a (if not the) leading expert on the Russian language in the Russian diaspora. She had been asked to go and work for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as his secretary as he and his family lived their new life in exile from Russia – on a ranch in Vermont, USA!

She told me she remembered exactly the day and the moment when the news broke. Solzhenitsyn used to listen to the news on the BBC World Service, and she recounted how “He went crazy!  He was jumping up and down, whooping, behaving like we had never seen him before.”

Irina Ilovaiskaya Alberti

The words of the most famous Russian political prisoner, and then exile, stuck with her. “This changes everything. A Polish pope. It changes everything,” he kept repeating over and over.

And Solzhenitsyn was right!

Fourteen years into the papacy of John Paul II, I attended and reported on the launch of the first edition of the new ‘JPII’ Catechism of the Catholic Church. That first edition was not in Latin but in French and the launch took place at the French episcopate’s office on Rue du Bac, in Paris. Incidentally, I sat next to the French Mariologist Fr Rene Laurentin, just so recently deceased. I had interviewed him the day before for a profile and had worked overnight – all night – to translate, into English for him, a lecture he was going to give later in the week!

Not too far from that spot were the offices of the newspaper of the Russians in Exile – La Pensee Russe. Its editor by then was one Irina Ilovayiska Alberti!

She was able to confide in me (off the record at that time!) that the Pope himself, John Paul II, had personally entrusted her with the task of translating ‘his’ new Catechism into Russian. As not only an expert in Russian language, but a convert from Russian Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism, she was perfectly placed to be able to translate (sometimes having to create new words or phrases) words or concepts not hitherto known or expressed in the Russian language!

She dedicated her latter years to doing that, and to reaching out to the peoples of the former Russian empire. Pope John Paul II had told Fr Werenfried and his collaborators to “be generous” in helping the Orthodox Churches rise from the ashes of Soviet persecution. Thus it was that I accompanied Fr Werenfried from Rome to Ukraine to reinstate the Unite Catholic Archbishop and all his curia and diocese, and how I had the privilege of travelling throughout Russia to deliver aid and encouragement to budding monasteries, convents, seminaries and parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church.

My colleagues and I did all this buoyed by the support of the Pope “from a faraway country” who told us of the importance of the Church breathing again with its “two lungs”, i.e. the Latin Churches and the Orthodox Churches.

Irina and Fr Werenfried were the ‘stars of the show’ in a television programme broadcast live from Fatima to the whole of Russia, and beyond. The story of Fatima was presented and explained. The precious icon of Our Lady of Khazan which had been preserved at Fatima was, of course, later returned to the Russian Orthodox Church by Pope John Paul II.

Anniversaries cause all sorts of memories to surface!

Recalling this 39th anniversary of the previously ‘Coronation’, but nowadays ‘Installation’ of the Supreme Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ that was St John Paul II, I think of the last time I was presented to him. I had the completely unmerited honour of being blessed by him before, and also of attending, his early-morning Mass in the Apostolic Palace.

It was the Holy Year 2000. A year of Jubilee, celebrating the Incarnation and our Redemption.
That year was also a year of individual jubilees. There would be a jubilee of health-care workers, for example. A jubilee of firefighters, and so on.
I attended the few days of the Jubilee of Journalists, which would culminate in an audience of the Pope.

On one of the days I addressed some twelve thousand Catholic journalists and media workers at a gathering at Castelgandolfo. It seemed the Pope had been privy to that, whether by watching some of it via the CCTV cameras that were in place, or else just by reports.

At the audience with him in the great Paul VI Audience Hall in the Vatican to conclude the Jubilee of Journalists, I was one of the handful of media folks chosen to greet the Holy Father at the end of the event.

By then he was already physically frail from the Parkinson’s disease – but of course his mind and spirit was still sharp.

Just the evening before, at a dinner in a restaurant run by nuns (only in Rome…!) a priest had shared some stories of travelling with the most-travelled pope in history. This priest was sharing the regard and concern of the Pope for the journalists who travelled with him on his many voyages.

Two things stuck with me. One was how one hack – sorry, reporter – partook of too many beverages as soon as he got on board the return flight of a papal trip. As a thank you for funding the flight (by buying their very expensive tickets) the Pope would come from the front section of the cabin and greet and share a few words with the press corps (or are they a pack?!).

Well, what to do with the inebriated and passed-out presshound?? This priest-journalist grabbed a blanket, arranged the unconscious body and covered it as if it were merely sleeping. Pope Wojtyla couldn’t resist it. While greeting the said priest he said, “Good for you for looking after your colleague. I do hope he feels better soon!” And while praising the priest’s action in saving the drunken hack’s dignity, he gave him a couple of taps on the shoulder.

Father told us, “That is something he does in more informal situations. When you see that he likes someone or is commending them – and it would be men, for he would not be so familiar with a lady – he taps them strongly on the shoulder.” One of our company suggested it was almost like a gesture of knighting!

Well, at what would be my final personal encounter with this saint, we could see he was frail, but still giving himself completely to his flock, following everything with attention, making himself completely available.

When it was my turn to kneel at the feet of the Vicar of Christ, I could not bring myself to ask him for blessings or tell him about the group I had brought to this Jubilee of Journalists etc. I felt moved to thank him, to thank him for this jubilee of journalists, for this jubilee year of grace for the entire Church, for all that he had done during his pontificate, for his Catechism and so on and so forth.

He held up his right hand as if to stop me and I paused. He gave me two strong taps on my left shoulder as he said, “I thank YOU for all that you do…..”

Yes, I knew that he had read a couple of my books, but that humility coming from Christ’s Vicar on Earth rendered me speechless. Again I bowed my head and kissed the Fisherman’s Ring…

People who become what we are called and made to be, change everything.
A saint changes even those whom he or she meets.
Those who accept the Word of God and “ponder it in their hearts” as Our Blessed Lady did, are those who change the world.

Yes, your election to Peter’s Chair changed everything Holy Father.
Your faithfulness to the Good Shepherd changed us, your children in the Faith.
Your total donation to our Mother – Totus Tuus – shows us the way.

St John Paul II, pray for us.



Jim Gallagher is the author of John Paul II – The Road to Sainthood


In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries of Pope St John Paul II
by Pope St John Paul II




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