His photo hung on the brick wall above the front door of St. Patrick’s Grade School. Sporting a red beanie, resting on what seemed to be a disproportionately small head, with a serious, reflective expression. It was easy to brush by his glare. Typically we exchanged glances while I was on my way to recess and had other priorities -- like pulling Mary Lou Marmie’s pony tails, for instance. Still, that photo of Pope Paul IV became a part of my consciousness. He was, afterall, the direct successor of St. Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built “the church.” But in 1969 we didn’t need another level of Catholic hierarchy. Our cup was already brimming – thanks to classes taught by Dominican nuns, daily church, and the fact that my parent’s home was roughly a hundred feet from the convent, which, despite being off-limits, often beckoned us.
None of the boys at St. Pat’s were on a spiritual journey. That is not to say we weren’t going places. Our leaders were more secular types – Billy Jack, Evil Kneivel, Buford Pusser and Harold Ensley. Being Catholic was largely an experience in sacrifice and confession, but there was a huge dimension of sheer fun found in cutting corners, incurring the wrath of Sister Mary Rose, Larry and Ramona Keenan and many others. Perhaps Pope Paul figured my time would come later.
He died in August, 1978 just before I returned to begin my sophomore year at KU. John Paul I’s brief time in the Papacy wasn’t noteworthy except how I learned of it – on a Thursday night in September when an inebriated fraternity brother, having arrived from a Drink and Drown night at the Mad Hatter – blurted out “the Pope died! The Pope died!”
The church’s new leader returned to my universe in an unexpected way. It took the effort of an Iowa famer named Joe Hays – writing a letter to the Vatican on what media reports described as lined notebook paper. “The appeal was sent by courier on a private jet to a bishop in Washington, D.C. and he extended the invitation to Rome” one newspaper reported. John Paul II’s October, 1979 celebration of an outdoor mass in the Iowa cornfields remains an iconic statement of his legacy. One of those present was my brother Marty. He joined a group of KU students organized by the St. Lawrence Center. I declined going and regretted it almost immediately. He was a fisher of men, casting his net in the middle of nowhere and bringing with him a reported 340,000 followers.
I set off on my adult journey and the noise of life grew louder. Meanwhile John Paul II continued to shape the course of the church, and history as well. And thirteen years later, when I was on a family vacation in Dillon, Colorado on in August, 1993, the pastor announced they were organizing a bus to see John Paul II in Cherry Creek Park in Denver for World Youth Day seven days later. There was no hesitation. I was in.
Like the Apostle Thomas, sometimes you need to place your hands in a metaphorical wound to believe. That day changed me. It did. I have neither the vocabulary nor the inclination to attempt an explanation here, but it was real. Like a modern day fishes and loaves, with at least one sinner way in the back row sporting a KU hat. The day was not entirely one of examining my conscious; there were more practical things to ponder -- like ‘who is baking this many hosts? ‘How will they distribute communion?” “How can I get to the VIP seats?”
A year later in December, when the mailman delivered our Time Magazine, John Paul II was on the cover -- Time’s Man of the Year. I saved it in a plastic tub in the basement. When we moved last year, I found it and reflected on that day he and I intersected on a dusty hill with 500,000 other followers. And as the Cardinals select a new leader, here is one parent that hopes his four children find a connection with St. Peter’s successor as I once did.
Matt Keenan’s book, “Call Me Dad, Not Dude,” is available at Borders and online at thekansascitystore.com. Write to Matt at his Website, matthewkeenan.com.