During their lives of service priests meet people from all stratas of society, many of whom would qualify for inclusion in that select company known as “saints on earth.” I have personally met three people who officially acquired that status while still here on planet earth.
Chronologically, the first of this trilogy was Pope John XXIII, who entered upon the international scene in 1958, after serving as Patriarch of Venice. He came to the papacy at a challenging time.
In what was surely an occurrence “orchestrated by Divine Providence,” I was present in Rome on October 11, 1962 for the opening of Vatican Council II. A few days earlier it had been my privilege to meet Pope John XXIII in the Apostolic Palace. The audience, arranged by Amleto Cardinal Cigognami, comprised only nine others, all important ecclesial personages.
When the Holy Father came to me, I identified myself as a priest from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles whereupon he launched into a brief talk about devotion to the angels, pointing out that his name was “Angelo.” I didn’t presume to explain that our archdiocese was dedicated to “Our Lady of the Angels” and not to the angels themselves. For once I kept my big mouth shut. Later it was disclosed that on that very day he had received news of his terminal cancer.
The last time I was in Saint Peter’s, the pressing crowds made it difficult to pause and pray before the remains of Pope John XXIII which were enshrined in one of the altars halfway into the Basilica.
Only one of the three persons mentioned here actually came to visit, rest in my apartment and meet my dog. Pope John Paul II was our guest at San Fernando Mission on September 16, 1987. His sojourn to the seventeenth of the California missions lasted approximately five hours after which he was flown to Dodgers Stadium for a public Mass.
At 8:45am, 305 members of the American hierarchy were ushered into the mission church and it fell to me to present the pontiff with an elaborately embroidered stole which he wore during morning prayers. I was one of only five non-bishops allowed on the grounds. Security was extreme, to say the least.
At exactly 2:30p.m. “Marine No. 1” lifted majestically into the sky and when the helicopter took to the air, I uttered a silent prayer for my deceased parents who must have been happy to see their first born extend a welcome mat for the Pope.
It took several days for those of us at San Fernando Mission to digest the happenings of those precious hours and to fully appreciate that Pope John Paul II had prayed in our church, greeted the American bishops and lunched in our garden. Hereafter and forever, San Fernando will be the “papal mission,” the first of those great frontier establishments along El Camino Real visited by the Vicar of Christ.
Later on October 26, 1989, on a pilgrimage I was able to concelebrate Holy Mass with the pontiff in his private chapel in Rome. It was easily the thrill of a lifetime.
Finally, one day in mid-1990, I glanced out a second story window of the The Tidings building where I was serving as interim editor, to see Mother Teresa and a companion walking down Ninth Street. I grabbed my pad and rushed downstairs to greet the famous nun. She was her usually gracious self and answered the few questions I put to her.
Before I could ask for her blessing, she knelt down and asked me for mine. Can you imagine that? At the time I could only recall the Latin formula which seemed quite acceptable to her.
Unquestionably the most celebrated woman of the twentieth century, Mother Teresa hailed from an area in what is now Macedonia. Subsequently, she became known as the “first lady of India” for her work among the poor which brought her the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Throughout her remarkable life, Mother Teresa considered herself simply as a “pencil in God’s hand.” Today more than 4,500 woman wear her distinctive religious habit.
Earlier I had met Mother Teresa at a Ladies of Charity gathering where I was delivering the keynote address. I glanced over to see her reciting the rosary while I spoke.
Finally I was at the Piazza de San Pietro on October 19, 2003 when that remarkable woman was beatified.
Oh, there have been other brushes with sanctity in my long life, like the exhumation and canonization of Fray Junípero Serra, the meeting with Bishop James Walsh of Maryknoll at Cardinal Manning’s silver Episcopal jubilee and the visit of Josef Cardinal Mindzenty who visited the Chancery Archives.
But the above mentioned actually met and talked with this old country priest. Hopefully I will know them better in heaven.