The following is Chapter 9, "The Blessed Sacrament", from Jason Evert's new book, Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves.
Between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m.and
sometimes as early as 4:00Pope John Paul II would arise each morning,
keeping virtually the same schedule he had as the bishop of Kraków.
Although he enjoyed watching the sunrise, the main reason for his early
start was to make time for prayer. He prayed the Rosary prostrate on the
floor or kneeling, followed by his personal prayers, and would then go
to the chapel in order to prepare for 7:30 Mass. According to his press
secretary, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, his sixty to ninety minutes of private
prayer before Mass were the best part of his day.
chapel, he would kneel before the Blessed Sacrament at his prie-dieu.
The top of his wooden kneeler could be opened, and it was brimming with
notes people had given to him, seeking his prayers for all kinds of
petitions, including healings, the conversion of family members, or
successful pregnancies. Perhaps thirty to forty new petitions were given
to him each day, and he would pray specifically over every one. He said
that they were kept there and were always present "in my consciousness,
even if they cannot be literally repeated every day."
one of his biographers, "There was a time when I thought that one had to
limit the ‘prayer of petition.’ That time has passed. The further I
advance along the road mapped out for me by Providence, the more I feel
the need to have recourse to this kind of prayer." Quite often, those
who sent the petitions wrote back in thanksgiving for answered prayers.
His assistant secretary noted that most of them expressed gratitude for
the gift of parenthood. Not only did he intercede before the tabernacle
for these individuals as if they were his most intimate friends, he
routinely sought information about the progress of the cases. The
liturgy would not begin until he had before him the petitions people had
asked him to offer on their behalf.
After going to the
sacristy to don his vestments for Mass, he would again kneel or sit for
ten to twenty minutes.When visitors arrived to join him for Mass, they
would always find him kneeling in prayer. Some said, "he looked like he
was speaking with the Invisible." One of the masters of ceremonies
added, "it seemed as if the Pope were not present among us." Bishop
Andrew Wypych, who was ordained to the diaconate by Cardinal Karol
Wojtyła, added, "You could see that he physically was there, but one
could sense that he was immersed in the love of the Lord. They were
united in talking to each other."
During the celebration of the
Eucharist, one observer noticed, "He lingered lovingly over every
syllable that recalled the Last Supper as if the words were new to him."
Then, after the moment of Consecration, he would genuflect before
Christ’s presence on the altar with tremendous reverence. Visitors to
his private Masses noticed that you could hear the thud of his knee
slamming down upon the marble floor when he became too weak to support
himself as he genuflected. After Mass, a lengthy time of thanksgiving
followed before the Holy Father greeted guests and gave each of them a
The Eucharist was the principal reason for his
priesthood. He said, "For me, the Mass constitutes the center of my life
and my every day." He added, "nothing means more to me or gives me
greater joy than to celebrate Mass each day and to serve God’s people in
the Church." John Paul didn’t merely offer the Mass. He lived it. Like
the Eucharist itself, he became an immolation of lovea living sacrifice
offered to the Father for the salvation of mankind. Because of his deep
faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, he was adamant
with priests and bishops about how theMass ought to be celebrated.He
told a group of American bishops, "This is why it is so important that
liturgical law be respected. The priest, who is the servant of the
liturgy, not its inventor or producer, has a particular responsibility
in this regard, lest he empty liturgy of its true meaning or obscure its
Prayer was the rhythm of theHoly Father’s
life. He made time to pray before and after his meals, and interspersed
his Breviary prayers (the Liturgy of the Hours) throughout the day and
night, calling it: "very important, very
important." At six in
the morning, at noon, and again at six in the evening, he would stop
whatever he was doing to pray the Angelus, just as he had done while
working in the chemical plant in Poland. He prayed several Rosaries each
day, went to confession every week, and did not let a day pass without
receiving Holy Communion. Each Friday (and every day in Lent), he prayed
the Stations of the Cross, and preferred to do this in the garden on
the roof of the Papal Apartments. During Lent, he would eat one complete
meal a day, and always fasted on the eve of our Lady’s feast days. He
remarked, "If the bishop doesn’t set an example by fasting, then who
will?" The Holy Father knew that his first duty to the Church was his
He declared, "the shepherd should walk at the
head and lay down his life for his sheep. He should be the first when it
comes to sacrifice and devotion."
Each night, he looked out
his window to Saint Peter’s Square and to the whole world, and made the
sign of the cross over it, blessing the world goodnight. For many years,
he ascended to the roof of the Papal Apartments to offer this nightly
blessing. Visitors standing in the square noticed that his light often
went off between eleven and one in the morning. One of his biographers
noted that he seldom went to bed before midnight. As a priest and
bishop, and perhaps as pope, he sometimes slept on the bare floor. In
Krako«w, his housekeeper knew of this, and noticed that he would crumple
his bed sheets to conceal it.
The Old Lion
More remarkable than his daily, weekly, and annual traditions of prayer
was his habit of incessant prayer. While walking from place to place
inside the Vatican or outside, prayer became as natural and vital to him
as his breath. While strolling to his next appointment, Archbishop
Mieczysław Mokrzycki said, "he was immersed in prayer for those five
minutes. He was then beyond our reach, turned off. There were dozens of
moments like that during the day. We knew that we were not supposed to
disturb the Holy Father then because he was with God. They were united
in an unusual way." He added that John Paul’s mysticism was evidenced by
the fact that he would "disconnect" himself from his surroundings and
appeared oblivious to external distractions. Cardinal Dziwisz noticed
that even times of work were "peppered with prayers, with short bursts
of prayer." One member of the Curia noted, "No sooner does he pause than he starts praying..." Cardinal Christoph Schönborn observed:
Holy Father looked as though he never stopped praying. I never saw
anyone so constantly immersed in union with Christ and God, as though it
were a permanent state that led him to submit everything he did unto
the Lord’s hands. His attentiveness to others, his gestures, words and
readingseverything he did was bathed in prayer, like the great mystics.
It could be said that he didn’t make time to enter prayer. Rather, he made time for the sake of others to come out of it.
Pope John Paul II raises the Eucharist during the celebration of Mass in St. Louis during his last visit to the United States in January of 1999. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
Because he believed that every encounter was providential, he stated,
"As soon as I meet people, I pray for them." Those who had the blessing
of meeting him in person would not be surprised by this information,
based upon how fully present he was to each person he encountered. One
of his secretaries affirmed this: "He prayed for everyone he met. He
prayed before and after the meeting." This didn’t apply only to formal
meetings, as he could often be seen praying the Rosary as he waved at
crowds from his Popemobile.
However, what’s more fascinating
than when the Pope prayed or what he prayed, is how he prayed. While
hiking atop the Italian Alps, Dziwisz told the guide, "Lino, the Holy
Father wants to be alone for a little while in recollection, let’s look
for a good spot." They noticed a large flat rock and guided him over to
it. The guide explained what happened next in his book, The Secret Life of John Paul II
was then that I witnessed for the first time something I will truly
never forget, and thatovercoming my reservationsI am telling here for
the first time. I seek to do so accurately and with purity of heart. His
head was bowed and he was absorbed in prayer, totally immobile, without
even the slightest movement. He was in a sort of tranceor I dare say,
ecstasywhich he was modestly hiding from us. In fact, I couldn’t see
his face or even tell whether his hands were folded or not. Nor if his
eyes were open or closed. Instead, I had the very clear sensation that I
was observing someone endowed with a spiritual power that was no longer
human; someone who no longer belonged to this world, but was living
those minutes in complete communion with God, with the saints, and with
all the souls of heaven. The unreal sparkle of the snow all around
emphasized this impression. A complete silence had descended. Everything
was motionless, as if a state of contemplation had taken hold of every
element of nature. . . . He never moved so much as a millimeter, his
muscles were motionless like everything else around him. Then, the
strangest thing occurred. The Pope, after [the] tiniest imperceptible
movement, revived and then slowly got up, and when we looked at our
watches, realized that almost an hour had gone by.
episodes of deep prayer were commonplace, according to those who spent
time with the Holy Father. In 1995, when John Paul visited the Sacred
Heart Cathedral (now Basilica) in Newark, he made a visit to the Blessed
Sacrament before departing. When he knelt at the priedieu, Cardinal
It was my hope, my intention
to kneel a little behind him. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. As soon as he
knelt, it was like a sacred space, like a tent was around him, and I
moved away. I moved three or four yards back and stood by one of the
stone pillars of the cathedral. Because you had to leave space there. . .
. He went into the deepest prayer. . . . I’ve rarely seen anyone in
that state of such deep prayerfulness. He wasn’t with us any more. He
was with the Lord. He knelt and then in ten seconds he was gone. It was
so holy, I moved back. And he was there, for about maybe seven or eight
minutes, lost in total prayer.
Dziwisz took his elbow and he gently got up, turned around with a great
smile, waved to the people, and walked on.
Rigali recalled a similar incident that took place in Canada when the
Pope was kneeling in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, prior to the
beginning of a ceremony. The master of ceremonies decided it was time
for the Holy Father to wrap it up and suddenly said, "The Pope will now
rise . . ." Rigali recalled what happened next:
the Pope didn’t rise. He just stayed put. And the poor man [the master
of ceremonies], whatever got into him, it went from bad to worse: So he
waited a couple of minutes, and then he made the second announcement:
"The Pope will now rise." Incredible. And the Pope didn’t rise. So then
he just knelt down and stayed quiet. When the Pope was ready, then he
rose and went on.
Sometimes when John Paul emerged
from such interludes of deep prayer, he didn’t seem refreshed, but was
instead preoccupied and burdened with the weight of information that
others were not privy to. On one such occasion in the wilderness, a
witness reported that he appeared to be "shaken to the core" and
immediately requested that he descend from the mountain to return to his
lodging. Within hours, the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait, and the Gulf War
The stirrings of John Paul’s deep interior life often
manifested themselves exteriorly. Father Maciej Zieba noticed, "When he
prayed, it was physical. He sighed deeply and made grunting sounds like a
lion. Some of us called himthe old lion. This was a mark of respect,
the way you respect the king of the realm." Countless visitors to his
private chapel witnessed his unforgettable prayerful groaning as he
knelt before the tabernacle. The Holy Father explained:
order to understand profoundly the meaning of prayer, one should
meditate for a long time on the following passage from the Letter to the
Romans: "For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of
the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of
its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that
creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share
in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all
creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that,
but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan
within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
For in hope we were saved" (Rom 8:1924).
And here again
we come across the apostle’s words: "The Spirit too comes to the aid of
our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the
Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings" (cf. Rom 8:26).
From his childhood, his father instilled in Karol a strong devotion to
the Holy Spirit. He recalled his father telling him, "You don’t pray to
the Holy Spirit enough. You ought to pray to him." Karol, Sr., gave him a
prayer book on the Holy Spirit, which he used throughout his life, and
also taught him the following prayer and instructed him to recite it
Holy Spirit, I ask you for the gift of Wisdom
to better know You and Your divine perfections, for the gift of
Understanding to clearly discern the spirit of the mysteries of the holy
faith, for the gift of Counsel that I may live according to the
principles of this faith, for the gift of Knowledge that I may look for
counsel in You and that I may always find it in You, for the gift of
Fortitude that no fear or earthly preoccupations would ever separate me
from You, for the gift of Piety that I may always serve Your Majesty
with a filial love, for the gift of the Fear of the Lord that I may
dread sin, which offends You, O my God.
He kept this
prayer on a handwritten note, and prayed it every day for the gifts of
the Holy Spirit, offering a Hail Mary and an Our Father for each of the
seven gifts. He said this prayer resulted a half century later in his
encyclical on the Holy Spirit, Dominum et Vivificantem. His
father’s witness may have given birth to an encyclical, but its greatest
effects took place within the Holy Father’s soul. As Saint Louis de
Montfort explained, "the greatest things on earth are done interiorly in
the hearts of faithful souls." The Pope’s relationship with the Holy
Spirit was summed up best when he was asked, "How does the Pope pray?"
He answered, "You would have to ask the Holy Spirit!"
Although John Paul loved communing with God in the wilderness, it was
clear that his favorite place to pray was before the Blessed Sacrament.
Witnesses report that he spent hours at a timeand sometimes the entire
nightprostrate on the marble floor before the tabernacle, with his arms
outstretched in the shape of the cross. One witness remarked that this
union with our Lord in the Eucharist allowed him "not merely to speak to
Christ, but actually to converse with him." As a bishop, he told
college students that for each person, the reality of the Eucharist
means "we have two people in one another’s presence: Our Lord and me."
Cardinal Dziwisz reported that you could sometimes hear him talking
aloud with God, having a dialogue. The Holy Father believed that
authentic prayer is when a person desires to be as attentive to God as
he is to us; when one yearns to hear God’s voice, just as God yearns to
hear each person. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he wrote, "Man achieves the fullness of prayer not when he expresses himself, but when he lets God be most fully present in prayer."
When a tabernacle wasn’t available, John Paul would make do. One of his
aides found him kneeling at a sink in a washroom because there was no
other private place to prepare for Mass at the Pordenone Fair. Another
witness walked into a utility closet at the Pope’s summer residence and
inadvertently found him "rapt in prayer."
The Holy Father often spent hours at a time writing before the Blessed Sacrament. He explained:
have always been convinced that the chapel is a place of special
inspiration. What a privilege to be able to live and work in the shadow
of His Presence. . . . It is not always necessary to enter physically
into the chapel in order to enter spiritually into the presence of the
Blessed Sacrament. I have always sensed that Christ was the real owner
of my episcopal residence, and that we bishops were just short-term
tenants. That’s how it was in Franciszkanska Street for almost twenty
years, and that’s how it is here in the Vatican. In his chapel in
Kraków, the kneeler was more of a prayer desk, with a desktop large
enough so that he could write while kneeling or sitting before the
Eucharist. A lamp was installed nearby so he could work at any time of
night as well. As pope, he spent time in adoration before every
Wednesday audience, and always made a short visit before and after every
meal. He also spent long amounts of time before the Blessed Sacrament
before and after his pilgrimages. Marathons of prayer were not unusual
for him. One papal photographer recalled, "I remember that in Vilnius he
prayed for six hours in a row . . ."
To John Paul,
it is not enough for Catholics to receive the Eucharist. One also must
contemplate it. He said that when one ponders the love that is present
in the tabernacle:
. . . love is ignited within us,
love is renewed within us. Therefore, these are not hours spent in
idleness, when we isolate ourselves from our work, but these are
moments, hours, when we undertake something that constitutes the deepest
meaning of all of our work. For no matter how numerous our activities,
our ministries, however numerous our concerns, our exertions if there
is no love, everything becomes meaningless.
When we devote our
time to ponder the mystery of love, to allow it to radiate in our
hearts, we are preparing ourselves in the best possible way for any kind
of service, for any activity, for any charitable work.
life of contemplation was the wellspring of his thoughts, words, and
actions. As he said, "all activities should be rooted in prayer as
though in a spiritual soil." His job was not to advance his own opinions
and agendas, but to transmit to the world the fruit of his own interior
life. One of his aides noted that he made "all of his major decisions .
. . on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament."
warned others, "In the absence of a deep inner life, a priest will
imperceptibly turn into an office clerk, and his apostolate will turn
into a parish office routine, just solving daily problems." He knew well
the primacy of "be-ing" over "do-ing," as can be seen when he prayed:
"Help us, Jesus, to understand that in order ‘to do’ in your Church,
also in the field of the new evangelization that is so urgently needed,
we must first learn ‘to be,’ that is, to stay with you, in your sweet
company, in adoration."
John Paul’s extravagant love for Christ
in the Eucharist sometimes became problematic for his handlers. In
fact, the prefect of the Papal Household often warned the organizers of
papal events to make sure not to allow the Pope to pass within view of a
place where the Eucharist was reserved. Otherwise, he’d surely enter
the chapel for prolonged periods of time and the entire schedule would
be thrown off.
In 1995, Father Michael White was invited to
organize the Pope’s visit to Baltimore on behalf of the archdiocese.
Prior to the Holy Father’s arrival, the chief organizer for papal
pilgrimages, Father Roberto Tucci, SJ, came to Maryland to scout out the
venues and make the necessary arrangements for John Paul’s trip. When
he arrived at the archbishop’s residence, he noticed that one of the
doors in the hallway the Pope would pass through opened into a chapel
with the Blessed Sacrament.
He instructed Father White, "Keep
that door closed so he doesn’t know there’s a chapel in there." Upon the
Pope’s arrival, the door was closed, and John Paul took some time to
eat and rest at the residence. When it was time to leave, he walked down
the hall, which was lined with doors leading into various rooms, passed
by the door of the chapel, then suddenly stopped. He looked back at the
door, then looked over at Father Tucci, and without saying a word,
wagged his finger at him and shook his head. Father White recalled:
never been in this place before, never set eyes on the place, and there
was nothing about the door that distinguished it in any way as a
chapel. It was just one more door in a corridor of doors. But he turned
right back around, he opened that door up, and he went into the chapel
and he prayed.
According to Father White, the Holy
Father remained in prayer long enough to "do some damage" to the
schedule, then left the residence to head to his appointment. The Holy
Father ended his visit to Baltimore at St. Mary’s Seminary in Roland
Park. A helicopter was staged on the front lawn of the seminary to take
him to the airport, where he was to meet with the vice president of the
United States. A crowd of enthusiastic future priests gathered on the
steps to wave at the Pope when he arrived, but John Paul’s handlers were
clear about the schedule: There was no time for him to make a visit.
The seminary had been begging for months to be included in the Holy
Father’s schedule, but time would not allow it.
seeing the young men, John Paul pulled Father Tucci aside and informed
him in Italian that he wanted to see the seminarymuch to the amazement
of that community when they were hurriedly informed. Once there, Father
White was astonished that the Pope instinctively knew where to go:
walked in the door, and this was completely unplanned and unscripted at
this point. The Secret Service hadn’t even done a complete sweep of the
building because this wasn’t part of the deal. And he just walked into
that building and walked right to the chapel, like he knew where it was.
It was just remarkable.
After spending a generous
amount of time before the Eucharist, briefly viewing the facility, and
greeting the future priestswith evident joy and absolutely no sense of
urgencyhe proceeded to his meeting at BWI Airport, where he had kept
Vice President Gore and the entire entourage for the departure ceremony
The Pope’s spiritual priorities were proof that he
believed the Eucharist was the greatest treasure the Church possesses.
Because of its inestimable value, he felt it was his mission to
"rekindle this Eucharistic ‘amazement’ " in the hearts of the faithful.
To help Christians understand the reality of Christ’s presence in the
Blessed Sacrament, he appealed to the human experience of love. During a
homily in Brazil, he asked:
How many times in our
lives have we seen two people separated who love each other? During the
ugly and bitter war, in my youth, I saw young people leave without hope
of return, parents torn from their homes, not knowing if they would one
day find their loved ones. Upon leaving, a gesture, a picture, or an
object passes from hand to hand in a certain way in order to prolong
presence in absence. And nothing more. Human love is capable only of
Motivated by an even greater love,
when the hour had come for Christ to part with his disciples, he had the
power to leave his Church with more than a gesture. In his absence, he
left his presence. John Paul explained:
Thus, to say
farewell, the Lord Jesus Christ, perfect God and perfect man, did not
leave his friends a symbol, but the reality of himself. . . . Under the
species of bread and wine, He is really present, with his Body and his
Blood, his Soul and Divinity.
For John Paul, the
question is not whether Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament,
but rather whether Catholics are truly present to God in their midst!
For this reason, he spoke of adoration as "an important daily practice"
that one should not omit in the course of the day. He declared:
Eucharist is the secret of my day. It gives strength and meaning to all
my activities of service to the Church and to the whole world. . . .
Let Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament speak to your hearts. It is he who is
the true answer of life that you seek. He stays here with us: he is God
with us. Seek him without tiring, welcome him without reserve, love him
without interruption: today, tomorrow, forever.
person is unable to visit or receive the Eucharist, John Paul
recommended that he or she make a spiritual communion, taking a moment
to invite Jesus into one’s heart.
For John Paul, the key to
rekindling Eucharistic love is to look to Mary, who was the first
"tabernacle" in history. In his encyclical on the Eucharist, he
explained, "And is not the enraptured gaze of Mary as she contemplated
the face of the newborn Christ and cradled him in her arms that
unparalleled model of love which should inspire us every time we receive
Today, John Paul’s tomb rests in the
most fitting of locations: in the heart of the Church in Saint Peter’s
Basilica, between the Chapel of the Pieta` and the Chapel of the Blessed
Sacrament. Even in death, he reminds the faithful of what he said in
life: "Were we to disregard the Eucharist, how could we overcome our own
Learn more about Jason Evert's book, Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves.