My Experience with John Paul II

When I was living in Italy, back when I was a confused and searching atheist, I had a habit of hopping the bus to Rome on Saturdays. I enjoyed walking the city and spending significant time in both the monuments – like the Coliseum – and in the cathedrals. I particularly liked Santa Maria Maggiore and St. Peters.
On one occasion I walked to St. Peters Square. I had intended to see the basilica. But the square was packed with thousands and thousands of people. The entire sea of shoulder-to-shoulder people was centered on one tiny white speck of a person. I had never seen a crowd like it. Of course I knew who the white speck was. And of course I took a picture. I still have it.
At the time, I felt as if I had seen a celebrity from afar. But it was more than that. I was seeing the power of the faith. I was seeing a 72 year old religious figure being treated like a rock star. Better than a rock star, with thousands of people hanging on his every word.
Moments like this – and moments like my awe at the paintings of Carravaggio in Santa Maria Maggiore or my curiosity at the stories told at the San Pietro in Vincolo (St. Peter in Chains) church – were tilling the soil of my heart, preparing me for the seed that soon God would be planting there.
So today I see the news of John Paul II’s beatification. I was in the presence, even tangentially and even if he was just a speck in the distance, of one whom we will call blessed, of one whom eventually we will call Saint. It is a thrilling thought.
These experiences that prepare one’s soul for God’s grace, we owe them to our children. Even local shrines or monasteries or diocesan cathedrals can be moving and can give one a glimpse of the majesty of God, a taste of the supernatural. On May 1, there will be another chance for such an experience, with the beatification ceremony of John Paul II. My kids and I will be watching.

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