They never exchanged words. But just being near Pope John Paul II inspired the Rev. Joby Thomas to be a better person, a compassionate priest and a more devout Catholic.
“If you just see his face close, it’s inspiration for your ministry and your life,” he said.
Thomas, a priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, is originally from India. He visited the pope on six occasions while studying at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. During the Mass of Pentecost in 2000, he served as a deacon, helping John Paul serve the chalice, the bread and the wine during the Catholic Church’s Year of Jubilee celebration.
The Rev. Wlodzimierz Pietka and the Rev. Michelino Roberto, both of whom are studying at the MU School of Journalism, also have a personal connection with the pope. Roberto, who is from Brazil, met the pope on three separate occasions and said he remembers John Paul’s sense of humor. In November 2002, Roberto and another priest did not have a special invitation to kiss the pope’s hand and receive a personal blessing. Because of a strong desire to meet the man they both admired, however, the two priests employed a diversion to secure a place in the receiving line. After realizing their ploy, John Paul smiled and patted one on the cheek.
“I think the pope liked our joking,” Roberto said.
It was not only the pope’s good nature that Roberto remembers, but also his deep devotion to the Roman Catholic Church and his faith.
“When I entered into the Chapel of the pope, the pope was there in prayer,” Roberto said. “There was a deep silence. The devotion of the pope during the Mass and the way the pope lead the Mass captured my attention so much. It helped me to celebrate my Mass, too.”
Pietka shares Polish heritage with John Paul, who served as a priest and a bishop there. Pietka was a teenager when he caught a glimpse of then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla — who chose the name John Paul when he became pope in October 1976 — during a visit to his Polish diocese.
“I saw in him a beautiful model of priesthood, very close to Jesus Christ,” Pietka said. “The pope helped me to understand better my priesthood.”
Mark Saucier, communications director for the Jefferson City Diocese, said priests who have spent time in Rome naturally feel a greater connection to John Paul as well as to the anxiety and sorrow that has gripped the Vatican in recent days.
“I think that any priest that has lived and studied in the Vatican is going to feel closer to this whole process that is taking place because they have been a closer part of that Vatican family,” he said.
Indeed, Thomas, Roberto and Pietka all said they longed to be in Rome the past few weeks, as John Paul’s health declined. Thomas said the emotional atmosphere at the Vatican has likely been intense, a feeling he wishes to share but cannot because he is so far away.
Roberto said John Paul continued to teach him about faith, despite his poor health and the distance between Columbia and Rome. He will remember him as a pope who reached out beyond the Vatican to touch the rich and the poor, the young and the old.
“John Paul II is the pope of my life,” Roberto said. “I believe that millions of people all over the world share the same feeling as me.”