Holy Fathers, Holy Faces

Finding the face of God in the witness of recent popes and of an earthly father

Another Lenten season has begun for the Church, the time in which the most important truths of the faith are meditated upon, re-enacted, and celebrated. It will be almost 20 years next October since John Paul II lauded the “new springtime of the human spirit” that seems to be blooming in the pontificate of Pope Francis, himself elected during Lent last year.

How could we forget Lent 2013, when Benedict XVI ignited a Franciscan revolution with his resignation? Unfortunately, that decision is seen by some as a sign of weakness, of a papal nadir, even, in some quarters, the mark of a “disastrous papacy.” Yet without Benedict there would be no Francis.

Without Benedict, I wouldn’t be writing this today, nor would I, perhaps, consider myself a penitent son of the Church in need of redemption but cognizant of God’s immense, undeserved love. As Benedict said in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, a lecture delivered the day before John Paul II died in 2005, “When faced with the question of God, man cannot permit himself to stay neutral. All he can say is ‘Yes’ or ‘No’—without ever avoiding all the consequences that derive from this choice even in the smallest details of life.”

This is about the battle of that question of God, with a “Yes” influenced by some great teachers I’ll call Holy Fathers.

The death of John Paul II

In the fall of 2004, fresh from an undergraduate career at John Carroll University in Cleveland, I ventured west for graduate school at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. I was intrigued by a Jesuit university in the City of Angels and confident that studying for a Master of Fine Arts in a Catholic environment would be the best of both worlds. I planned on landing at LAX with two suitcases and a wealth of hope.

Luckily, my dad knew better. Recently retired and no stranger to traveling, having crisscrossed the globe for two decades for a software firm and as a Marine stationed in Germany and the former Yugoslavia, he made the trip with me, settling me into my new place, shopping for essentials at Target, eating at a Mexican restaurant, and attending my first liturgy at LMU’s Sacred Heart Chapel. Not only was it our first time inside the 1950s mission-style church, but it was memorably celebrated by a Jesuit in an electric wheelchair—something neither of us had witnessed before.

By the fall of 2004, John Paul II was in serious decline but still fighting, having made his final trip abroad—appropriately, to Lourdes—in August. By early 2005 and the start of my second semester at LMU, the New York Times, which the university distributed for free around campus, was chronicling almost daily the news from the Vatican: John Paul II, the only pope I ever knew, the great lion I saw in St. Peter’s Square in 2002, was dying.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I was struck by a feeling of dread, of knowing the end was in sight and was unavoidable—the feeling when those closest to you are on their way to “the Father’s house.”

When John Paul died at 9:37 pm in Rome on April 2, it was 12:37 in the afternoon in Los Angeles. I was working on a paper when I heard confirmation that Saturday, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, but I couldn’t concentrate. I left the library and talked to many people on my cell phone that afternoon, wandering the sun-splashed campus, reflecting on the life—and death—of the man.

That night, about 8 o’clock, I ventured into Sacred Heart Chapel. I thought it an appropriate place to pray for the soul of someone whose entire life was in service to God and his people, especially in one of the most public displays of suffering the world had ever seen: the Passion alive in an 84-year-old pope, whose own end came a week after he celebrated the Resurrection of Christ, with most of the public duties overseen by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. “Lord, I know what you are telling me,” reads the prayer at the Fourth Station of the Cross at Lourdes. “To watch the pain of those we love is harder to bear than our own.”

The chapel was empty and dark, except for a single light on an easel just in front of the altar. On that easel was a portrait of a younger John Paul, probably after the assassination attempt of May 13, 1981, but when he was still young, still strong. Perhaps it was taken around the time of his writing Salvifici Doloris [On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering] in the early 1980s. His smile was close-lipped. He was joyful, but he wasn’t naïve. He knew the pain that came with this world—and perhaps the pain he himself would bear to the end.

Kneeling in the second or third pew, eyeing the easel, the altar behind it, the tabernacle, the crucifix hanging above it all, I wept.

A half hour later, 11:30 in the East, I called home. I knew it was late, but I hadn’t connected with my folks that day. My mom was sleeping, but my dad answered. And the tears continued to flow as I attempted to talk. Crying in front of him (or even over the phone) hadn’t happened in a long, long time. The Holy Father was gone, the seat of Peter vacant, but my own father was still here. In the back of my mind, I knew these kinds of calls a son or daughter usually takes for granted would not always be a midnight option. We only talked for about 10 minutes, but afterwards I felt the first sense of peace I had felt that day. After all, Karol Josef Wojtyla was now blessing us from the Father’s house. “Yes, bless us, Holy Father,” Cardinal Ratzinger intoned days later at the pope’s funeral, which I watched in silence with my roommate.

At the end of May, a manila envelope arrived in my campus mailbox; it was from my parents. When I removed the content, a thick light blue folder, my heart skipped a beat. Inside, for page after page, were prayer cards, newspaper clippings, novenas, and other articles collected from various churches around the state of Ohio related to the life and death of Pope John Paul II. Since my dad’s retirement, in this era of church closings and mergers, my parents had undergone an “Ohio pilgrimage,” visiting every church established before 1900 in all six Ohio Catholic dioceses—more than 400 in a period of five years.

This JPII tribute-packet also contained papal cards of the new Pope Benedict XVI, whose election on April 19 shocked me. After almost 23 years of John Paul, it was difficult to transition to Benedict, whose media image certainly wasn’t “the people’s pope.” My only personal identification with Pope Ratzinger was recalling the excitement of the Cleveland diocese seminarians who traveled with us John Carroll students during a trip to Rome in 2002. They attended Cardinal Ratzinger’s private Mass in the Vatican early one morning. Other than that, if I did think of him, I only thought of the humorous nicknames: God’s Rottweiler, panzerkardinal, and the German Shepherd.

The prodigal son

For me those post-John Paul II years were marked by life in a mainstream world where God wasn’t really in the picture and where I thought I could find personal success and cloak my Catholicism. In a way, I was just another American cradle-Catholic struggling to integrate the faith with this new, aggressive, narcissistic world—and letting that world win.

For me, the years immediately following the death of John Paul II were the years of the prodigal son. When I heard about Benedict it was from news reports in the New York Times, in stories about his “gaffe” about Islam in the Regensburg speech. I had heard about his first encyclical and while I found the title intriguing—“God Is Love”—I wasn’t intrigued enough to read it myself. I thought it interesting that a friend I met at Loyola Marymount used a line from the encyclical as his email signature: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Little did I know that Benedict’s urging for all of us to encounter this Person would be the hallmark of his often misunderstood pontificate.

And little did I know this was a professor-priest quietly addressing the pivotal issues of our day, keenly aware of the struggles facing mankind, and addressing what was my very own chief struggle as a 20-something Catholic. “Being a Christian must not become a sort of archaic stratum to which I cling somehow and on which I live to a certain extent alongside of modernity,” Benedict said at one point. “Christianity is itself something living, something modern, which thoroughly shapes and forms all my modernity—and in this sense actually embraces it.”

The Spirit indeed has his own plans, other ideas. At the end of those years of dead ends, isolated in the sprawling metropolis of individuals, dealing with the effects of a job loss and a car-totaling accident (on the same day!), and other situations that tested my identity as a Catholic, I was offered a staff position back at LMU. While it was not in the fine arts field, I readily accepted. There was no alternative. And that’s when the Holy Spirit cornered me. The “Yes” or “No” question of God could no longer be avoided.

The death of a faithful, faith-filled father

On Ash Wednesday of that first year on staff at LMU, in a much different time and era than my freewheeling school days, I was flying back home to Cleveland. My father, hospitalized a couple days earlier, had fallen into a coma after complications from kidney failure. This was unexpected, and while the outcome was unknown, I knew it could not be good. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to talk to him again. What I was about to witness was the Passion unfold again, the drama of the Cross visceral and terrifying, wrenching and moving—the meanings of the Stations of the Cross, stigmatas, and Christ’s descent into hell never better understood than during these days. This was not the pope nine time-zones away in Rome. This was my own father. Of course, he had already been carrying his Cross daily with his own health struggles. We’re never really sure of other people’s day-to-day demons.

Each precious day in the ICU passed with fleeting hope of a recovery, of a resurrection. One day, I was carrying a copy of Witness to Hope, George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II. The neurologist, a devout Jewish man, shared his own experiences of his faith informing his life, career, and decisions. He pointed to the book’s cover. “He was the first pope to visit Auschwitz,” he said. “And the first pope to visit the Roman synagogue,” I replied. During those passing hours, my mother handed me a new book on loan from the library—Light of the World, the conversation with Benedict XVI and Peter Seewald published just a few months earlier. Yes, I had heard about this, I said. Maybe it was time to finally give Benedict XVI a fair shot. I found his willingness to conduct an interview without seeing the questions refreshing and inviting, and not typical of a pope.

My father never woke up. He died 10 days later on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph, patron of fathers and of a happy death. It was the most faith-filled week-and-a-half of my life, a vigil witnessing an Anointing of the Sick, prayers, Rosaries, invocations of saints, Communion with family and friends, and at last a hospital Mass celebrated just after he passed. (How important it is to keep our Catholic hospitals alive!)

Today it is not lost on me that March 19 is the feast of Joseph Ratzinger’s patron saint. While my dad and I never had a final, knowing farewell, our last conversation in person was the previous Christmas. He had had suggested I return to celebrate in Cleveland. I was thumbing through Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism, which our parish had passed out as gifts following Christmas Eve Mass. That book must have prompted my father to talk about his concern of the state of the Church, of its declining numbers in both faithful and religious. It was a troubling subject for him, and that surprised me at the time. Maybe it was because I have since placed great significance upon that final chat, but I wonder if perhaps of all his interests, God was the one my father thought about the most.

The Benedictine spring—and shock

Having returned to Los Angeles after the funeral, surrounded by busy students and work deadlines, I found things were both the same but markedly different. One day I walked out of the LMU library clutching Ratzinger and Seewald’s Salt of the Earth. Just as John Paul II’s death seemed to point me to my own father the night of April 2, 2005, so too, upon his death, my dad pointed to a new spiritual father in 2011. In spite of a great void that will never be completely filled in this earthly life, this was, for me, the time of the Benedictine Spring, in which out of profound loss came a revival and a reawakening. A new way of life was blooming.

In the writings and teachings of Pope Ratzinger, the Christianity I had known for 28 years was suddenly given a depth and richness I never considered; I don’t think I was ever prouder to be a Catholic. After finishing his first volume of Jesus of Nazareth that summer, I walked into a confessional for the first time in three and a half years. After finishing his second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, I declared it one of the best books I had ever read (and I was assigned a lot of reading as a classics major and English minor). To have the privilege of reading his previous works with his current output as pontiff was an amazing gift (his incomplete final catechesis on the Creed from early 2013 promised to be one of his best). In whatever I picked up by him, there was always plenty of encouragement to live the faith in the world today. I was not alone.

It was noticeable that after his Mexico and Cuba trips in 2012 Benedict did not look well. He had launched the Year of Faith and was planning his encyclical on faith when, on February 11, 2013, just before Ash Wednesday and the start of another Lent, his simple, humble “declaratio” stunned the world. Yet this very act of abdication would serve as a gateway for what was to come. I was saddened but admired his courage. He knew he could not repeat the public physical decline that had characterized the last years of John Paul II. He knew the Church needed new energy, and he knew he had one more gift in him for the faithful. It was a study in leadership that has gone largely misinterpreted or misrepresented.

By this time, I was working in campus ministry at Loyola Marymount, scheduled to take students to World Youth Day in Rio later that year. And when white smoke emerged from the chimney in Rome on March 13, I had never anticipated watching the election of a Jesuit pope in a room full of Jesuits in Los Angeles. But such is work of the Spirit, about whom my 8th grade teacher once advised, “Never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit.” While in Rio that July, I recalled the numerous business trips my dad took to Brazil 10 years earlier. Not being able to share experiences or seek advice continues to be one of the toughest parts of losing a parent.

The Church and the world now have Francis. I am thankful that I knew John Paul II for almost 23 years, Benedict for eight, and my own father for 28. The latter lived long enough to see me fully employed, met (just once) the woman who will become my wife, and urgently shared with me his great concern on that last Christmas. The Bible was the last book he read, leaving off at the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews, the thundering introduction of which reveals how joyful the Gospel really is:

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe…

“Your face, O Lord, I seek”

In reading Benedict, I became accustomed to his frequent references to the Holy Face of God. “Rely on the mighty Lord,” implores Psalm 105, “constantly seek his face.” So I was pleasantly surprised to read in Francis’ Urbi et Orbi message for Christmas 2013: “Today, I voice my hope that everyone will come to know the true face of God.” It is my hope, too. That even in the dying face of one’s father one can see the face of God: obedience even in the face of death.

I marveled when I looked into this devotion to the Holy Face. I found it to be a reference to the Veil at Manoppello in the Abruzzi Region of Italy. It is said to be the “napkin” mentioned in John 20:7, which covered the head of Jesus at his burial and upon which is a vivid, startling impression of a man’s bruised face with open eyes, as if he has just awakened, startled, new life having been breathed into him. The peaceful gaze of the incarnated Agnus Dei. The Face of God, then, is not one of an agonized death, but of resurrected life. Paul Badde’s The Face of God, chronicling the incredible story of this veil, would have certainly been one to share with my father.

“‘Your face, O Lord, I seek’: seeking the Face of Jesus must be the longing of all of us Christians; indeed, we are ‘the generation’ which seeks his Face in our day,” Benedict said in his address at Manoppello on September 1, 2006. Two weeks after returning from this visit, he raised the tiny chapel housing the veil to a basilica.

I pray that my own life and death be as dignified and humble as those of the holy fathers I have written about. I certainly would not have glimpsed the divine face without them.

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About James Day 12 Articles
James Day is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (Sophia Institute Press, 2016). He is a producer and operations manager for EWTN’s West Coast Studio at the Christ Cathedral campus in Orange County, California.