April 14, 2005 • Volume 13 Number 15

Members of the Boston College community signed a memorial book following a prayer service for Pope John Paul II on April 4 in OíNeill Plaza. (Photos by Lee Pellegrini)

University community bids farewell to a much-loved 'pilgrim'

Publicly and privately, Boston College last week mourned and remembered Pope John Paul II.

Two major campus-wide memorial events on April 4 brought administrators, faculty, staff and students together to share their grief and prayers for the late pontiff.

As last Friday's funeral for John Paul II approached, members of the BC community - theologians, historians, former and current students alike - on campus and in far-flung locations reflected on the life and legacy of the man who led the Catholic Church for 26 years.

Speaking at the April 4 memorial service in O'Neill Plaza, University President William P. Leahy, SJ, described the late pope as a pilgrim "traveling the road of life with a powerful sense of mission," and urged those in attendance to follow the example of his service and sacrifice.

"Today is a time to recall Pope John Paul II, but it is also a time for rededication," said Fr. Leahy. "A time to rededicate our lives to our core religious and cultural values. That means different things for each of us. But the life of John Paul II invites us to think how we live, how we respond to those in need, and how we build up the community around us."

Director of Campus Ministry Rev. James Erps, SJ, led the service, which included recitations by BC students of some of the pope's more memorable public comments, and hymns led by members of the Liturgy Arts Group. Fr. Erps praised the pope as an advocate for the poor and developing world, and for human rights, and who had "called on all cultures to better respect the great gift of life."

That evening, the University community filled St. Ignatius Church for a memorial Mass, concelebrated by Fr. Leahy. In his homily, St. Mary's Rector Rev. Paul Harman, SJ, recited excerpts from John Paul II's 1979 speech at Boston Common, in which the pontiff reached out to young people:

"You are the future of the world and the day of tomorrow belongs to you...Faced with problems and disappointments, many people will try to escape from their responsibility: escape in selfishness...escape in indifference and cynical attitudes. But tonight I propose to you the option of love, which is the opposite of escape...Whatever you make of your life, let it be something that reflects the love of Christ...remember that Christ is calling you, in one way or another, to the service of love: the love of God and of your neighbor."

Fr. Harman said, "The Holy Father was not suggesting that listening to Jesus' call and choosing the option of love is easy. Even as a young university student he knew, firsthand, the experience of suffering and conflict. By the time he walked onto the world's stage in 1978 as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, he had no illusions that the following of Christ was a matter of finding things easy and right; rather, it is about giving ourselves generously to God's gracious activity in making things right."

Jennifer Theiss '06, who is studying at John Cabot University in Rome this semester, went with friends to view the pope lying in state during the night of April 4. In an e-mail to the on-line Boston College Chronicle, she described the crowded scene at the Vatican, and how she and her companions finally entered the Basilica in the wee hours of the morning.

"Immediately, everyone became silent and the expressions on people's faces changed. The Pope surely had a connection with his followers and it was evident at this moment...Following the viewing, people congregated on either side of the church and were kneeling and praying. I think the Vatican did a terrific job of creating a welcoming atmosphere, so that devoutly religious people could find comfort in seeing the Pope for the last time. They allowed people to stay in the Vatican and spend time to send their last regards."

Back on campus, Boston College theologians recalled John Paul II as an extraordinary leader who championed the human spirit.

"He was a great giant who strode across the stage of history," said Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry Director Prof. Thomas Groome, speaking at a Burns Library press conference on April 1 as the world kept vigil for the dying Pope.

Elected to the papacy in 1978, the former Karol Wojtyla of Poland was the only pontiff many people have ever known, observed adjunct faculty member Rev. Raymond Helmick, SJ. "He's given a face to the Catholic world, and people have had great affection for him."

Prof. Rev. Robert Imbelli noted the pope who so publicly bore his infirmities with grace and courage did his doctoral dissertation in theology on St. John of the Cross. "He has lived the Cross of Christ," Fr. Imbelli said. "He has shown his own vulnerability to the world in a way few historical figures have."

Assoc. Prof. Stephen Pope said John Paul II was above all a pastor, who in his last hours chose not to go to the hospital but to remain in his Vatican apartment, where he "sat by the window with the cold breeze in his face to be present to the people.

"What it comes down to for John Paul is the dignity of the person," said Pope. "To his last breath he wanted to care for people."

Interviewed last Wednesday, Flatley Professor of Catholic Theology David Hollenbach, SJ, credited John Paul II for his efforts to promote "the global nature of the Catholic Church," despite the difficulty of relating to such a diverse array of cultures and societies.

Fr. Hollenbach said the pope had shown himself to be a strong proponent of economic and social justice who had spoken out against "the disparity of wealth and well-being" between, and within, countries.

John Paul II also will be remembered for his activism in human rights, said Fr. Hollenbach. "His role in relation to human rights was, in effect, a continuation of the Second Vatican Council, and in that regard it was unprecedented. He arguably helped bring down the Soviet empire, and changed history in doing so."

Fr. Hollenbach noted the pope's outspokenness on issues of conflict and war, such as the US invasion of Iraq and ongoing strife in some African nations. "He was seeking ways to make the Catholic Church a peace-making church. That was one of his major undertakings."

Matthew S. Monnig, SJ, '97 MA '97, a Master of Divinity candidate at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley who did his master's thesis on Pope John Paul II, said the late pontiff was first and foremost a Catholic leader. "Pope John Paul II was what a Pope is supposed to be: the vicar of Christ," Monnig wrote in a piece for the on-line Chronicle.

"He showed Christ's love to the world, and preached His message. Much is made of the novelty of his approach, and it is true that his approach was new and that it has permanently reshaped the papacy, but it is not original. It is recovered. The Pope is successor to the apostles, and John Paul simply did what the apostles did.

"Those who cry for a future Pope to modernize the Church fail to recognize that that is precisely what John Paul did. He modernized it not by embracing modernity's criticisms of the Church, but by making the Church relevant in the modern world. He put the Gospel first, and engaged modernity not on its own terms, but in terms of the Christian faith."

Like Monnig, other younger members of the BC community were struck by John Paul II's affinity with their generation. Brigid Tobin '97 experienced the papal rapport first-hand when she went to Rome in 1997 with the University Chorale. After the group had performed for John Paul II in the Papal Audience Hall, the pope greeted Tobin and others in the Chorale.

Tobin, as the Chorale president, had the honor of standing with the pope for a minute, which seemed to last an eternity yet was over before she knew it. "We just stood there talking, and he asked me 'How has your time in Rome been? What are you studying at Boston College?'

"He welcomed me like he would anyone else. It felt completely normal and usual. He didn't have a commanding presence; he just wanted to know about me.

"It was the closest to Heaven you can feel on Earth, but it wasn't until afterwards that I realized the magnitude of what had happened, and I was overwhelmed with emotion."

What made the moment even more gratifying, adds Tobin, was she was able to share it with her sister, Katie, a sophomore at the time who also sang with the Chorale. "You can't see her in the photo taken of me with the pope, but we know where she's standing."

Lindsay Williams, a College of Arts and Sciences freshman from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., said one of her first impressions of the pope came in the pages of a theology book during high school: "I remember reading how, after his assassination attempt, he had visited the man who had tried to kill him [Mehmet Ali Agca] and forgave him. I just thought how remarkable that was for someone to do."

A&S sophomore Daniel Grejdus of Billerica, who recalled getting "within 10 to 15 feet" of the pope during the 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto, said, "For me, he was a grandfather, with his wisdom and his words. People might not necessarily obey what he said, but I think they took his words to heart. While some may look to athletes or celebrities as role models, many of us see the pope as someone around whom you want to shape your life and the way you treat others."

-Stephen Gawlik, Mark Sullivan and Sean Smith

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