Bishop Anthony M. Pilla always believed he was in the presence of holiness when he met with Pope John Paul II.
His belief is being affirmed today as the Vatican is set for the dual canonization of the late pontiff and Pope John XXIII, who is best known for launching Vatican II.
“Both of them were brilliant and awe inspiring, yet they were so human,” said Pilla, retired bishop emeritus of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. “They were pastors at heart and people could really identify with them because they weren’t afraid to show their humanness.”
Pilla, 81, was a young priest when John XXIII served as pope from October 1958 until his death in June 1963. Although he never met the late pontiff, Pilla remembers his reputation as a simple, humble man who people loved.
As president and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Pilla met with John Paul II four to five times a year over six years, through 1998. Pilla was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Cleveland in 1979 and as bishop in 1980 by Pope John Paul II, who served as pope from October 1978 to April 2005.
The Rev. Mark A. Latcovich, president-rector of Borromeo and St. Mary’s seminaries in Wickliffe believes much of the attention has been on the 26-year pontificate of John Paul II, dubbed the most-traveled pope in history because he is a contemporary, had a longer papacy and his age.
John Paul II was 57 years old when elected as pontiff, while John XXIII was 76.
A lot in common
Still, both men had a lot in common and are connected in a number of ways — John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II took part in the council, contributing to the writings of some of its documents; John Paul II beatified (the first step toward sainthood) John XXIII; both knew the horrors of Nazi occupation in Europe and had Jewish friends; both were writers and both were committed to social justice.
“Both of them let their pastoral heart serve the church. First and foremost, they were two marvelous priests who loved their people. They were humanitarians who knew the value of the human person and both had a great ability of making people feel at ease,” said Latcovich, 59. “They were two great leaders who believed we are all brothers and sisters and we are all called by God to do great things. They made holiness look very ordinary and modeled for us that we can all preach the gospel of life, the gospel of love and the gospel of peace.”
Latcovich said the two popes represent the best of the Roman Catholic church in the last six decades and that their elevation to sainthood is encouragement to others that they, too, can use their gifts to become saints.
For those like Latcovich and Pilla, who had personal interactions with either pope, their elevation to sainthood on Divine Mercy Sunday is very exciting. The canonization of the two popes simultaneously has caused them to reflect on the time they spent with them.
Those memories have elicited a sense of encouragement for Catholic Diocese of Youngstown Bishop George V. Murry, who met with John Paul II on three occasions in 1996, 1998 and 2004. The last time the two met, about a year before the pontiff’s death, the pope was very ill.
“As we sat in his library and talked about the church and living the Gospel, he was struggling with some of his infirmities, yet he still had the courage to go on,” Murry said. “We can easily begin to think that because we have faults and failings, we’re not going to make it into God’s presence. He showed us that even when we have weaknesses and affliction, God brings us through.”
Like Murry, the Rev. Patrick Manning, chairman of the theology department at Walsh University in North Canton, said John Paul had a way of showing genuine concern for others and building bridges of understanding.
Manning recently pulled out photographs from his visits to John XXIII’s hometown and the farm he grew up on and to a private audience with John Paul II. While looking at the images and reminiscing, he was overwhelmed by the thought of talking to and being touched by a saint.
“It’s almost frightening. The thought of them being proclaimed saints causes me to shake in my boots. I am very blessed to have been in the presence of Pope John Paul II. It’s all grace and I’m thankful for that,” said Manning, 62.
“When talking with the pope, he would hold your hand — sort of half holding and half shaking — and he had this uncanny ability to make you think you were the only person on God’s earth. He, and John XXIII, had this very strong current of not being afraid of anything because of their trust in almighty God.”
Catholic Diocese of Cleveland Bishop Richard G. Lennon was also impressed by Pope John Paul II’s ability to relate to people across generations and by his devotion.
“Reflecting upon the many writings which he has left the church, I am particularly struck by his faithfulness to the tradition of our Catholic faith and his willingness and readiness to speak about the Faith without any equivocation,” Lennon said. “There are many, many lasting impressions that Blessed John Paul II has left in the hearts and minds of people. One in particular, is his attentiveness to young people as he saw them as the hope of the Church in their lives and nurtured it with his presence.”
A special gift
One of Pilla’s fondest memories of John Paul II is watching him captivate an audience of hundreds of thousands during World Youth Day in 1993 in Denver.
“He was brilliant — a real teacher. He had a special gift of communicating with young people. He preached love, but not in a sentimental way. He preached love that was responsible and committed to truth,” Pilla said. “He had a tremendous energy for making the world a better place. He had courage, a tremendous sense of humor. He was a philosopher and a theologian. I’ve never seen anyone who was as absorbed in prayer as he was. It was almost mystical.
“I am blessed to have known him and I will always cherish the things he gave me when I left his office [rosaries, a chalice and a cross]. Those things are even more special now,” Pilla said. “What I will always carry with me is how he modeled that you can be a great powerful holy person and still be human.”