As the Holy Father descended upon Manhattan in the United States Air Force helicopter, a text came in from my brother:
“was jp2 the only one who would kneel and kiss the ground?”
“Every time until he couldn’t walk,” I replied. And even then the soil from the land he was visiting would be brought to him, a gesture evoking his farewell saying to the faithful: “I have looked for you, and you have come to me. And I thank you.”
Prompted by my brother’s text, I looked up video of Pope Saint John Paul II arriving in Africa in 1980. So graceful and healthy, with his outstretched hands in greeting only he could muster.
I suddenly missed him.
Now, I’m not comparing Pope Francis with the predecessor he canonized, only that the image of the lonely man in white emerging from a sea of dark suits amid hallowed American landmarks evokes similar sights of Benedict and John Paul before him. And yet both those men seem now a very distant memory in the frenzy that has greeted this New World pontiff.
Francis in New York echoes John Paul II’s visit to New York, Baltimore, and Washington, when he celebrated four Masses in five days in addition to addressing the United Nations, and event Francis repeated almost exactly 20 years later. It was in that October 5, 1995 speech that phrases “springtime of the human spirit,” “civilization of love,” “family of nations,” would be uttered, and where he was already anticipating the year 2000 as a symbolic turning point towards conversion to the Christian message—but as a proposal to be encountered by those willing to accept the invitation.
The photographs taken of the 75-year-old Holy Father on that New York leg in 1995 have a gravitas so worthy of both New York and the papacy, particularly a striking black-and-white from Keith Meyers of The New York Times of the white-clad John Paul outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where captured in the depth of field are gawking men in suits gazing at the man, around whose left arm is the clutching hand of Karol Wojtyla’s longtime secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz.
The mystique of John Paul in New York that fall is poignantly documented by Peggy Noonan in John Paul the Great—Remembering a Spiritual Father. She looks back on his triumphant march through the eastern United States that year from the lens of witnessing the ailing, debilitated man he had become in the 2000s, so difficult for so many who remembered his physical prowess: “The playfulness of the past—the way he used to wave with both hands, up and down, and say ‘Woo woo!’ to the children who cheered him in New York and Chicago long ago—was not possible for him anymore.”
Dickens’s character Sydney Carton warned in A Tale of Two Cities, “Any one carried home by the people today may be condemned tomorrow.” If culture is reliable about anything, it is that it relished rise and falls. By 1995, John Paul was pope for 17 years and still had almost 10 to go. He demanded until the end to be carried, rolled or dragged—depending how you looked at it—to preach his message, long after his popular image as a superstar diminished.
As Catholics, our narrative requires our earthly fall, only for an eternal comeback, rise, resurrection against all odds. Though three years younger than Francis is now during that New York trip in 1995, those captured images reveal a timelessness in that gravitas, an image of white calm amid dark New York chaos. Indeed, September 11 was only six years away. For John Paul then, he was on the verge of a very public and painful decline. But today, amongst this heightened papal visit seizing imaginations, those twenty-year-old images await rediscovery, even after memories have forgotten that there once was a man who so convinced of the truths of Jesus Christ he went to the ends of the earth and knelt every time his feet touched it until his body robbed him of doing so.
He was both reviled and beloved, an orphaned mystic, a poet saint. A man of his time but out of time.
May his memory remain.