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Dr. Susan Waldstein's Personal Reflections on John Paul II

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Personal Reflections on John Paul II: John Paul II, the Pope of the Family

Dr. Susan Waldstein, Adjunct Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University

John Paul II was elected pope in the same year that Michael and I were married. We watched a TV interview with an American Jesuit shortly after the election. The liberal Jesuit expressed his disappointment with the election of a Polish Cardinal who would not be able to understand American problems like sexuality! We had to laugh at such absurdity, but we little knew how very wrong this judgment would turn out to be or how much our lives would be intertwined with his work for the family.  John Paul II became the Pope for marriage, sexuality and the family. He gave his famous Wednesday addresses on Genesis for three years which were collected in the book, The Theology of the Body. Even as I write this article, Michael is downstairs working on a new English translation with commentary of the Theology of the Body. He also founded graduate schools for theological studies in marriage and the family all around the world.  Michael was invited to be founding president of the session in Austria, the International Theological Institute for Marriage in the Family.  After earning a Masters and Licentiate degree at the Institute (very slowly along side of home-schooling our eight children), I am now also teaching at the Institute. John Paul II wrote two marvelous documents on the family, Familiaris Consortio and Letter to the Family, which are included in our curriculum.

A sign of John Paul’s love for the family was his “preferential option” for babies and newlyweds at his general audiences. Michael and I had the privilege to “meet” John Paul II seven times at audiences.  Several times we were at general audiences with thousands of other pilgrims but we managed to make our way to a barrier and when our late Holy Father saw a baby in my arms, he made a bee-line for us and kissed and blessed our children. I was so overwhelmed the first time it happened with Maria-Theresia, a two-month old baby in my arms and Johannes not quite two, that I couldn’t even answer him when he spoke to me. “You are a very young mother,” he said. The next time, however, we were prepared. We had to bring our newborn Thomas to be blessed, impossible though it seemed, in St. Peter’s Square with ten thousand other pilgrims. We prayed for the miracle and were ready with our message.  We pleaded and pushed our way to a barrier, where the Holy Father did indeed stop and kiss and bless Thomas. We were able to blurt out, “We love you very much, Holy Father, and pray for you every day.”  We were able to attend a private Mass and audience with the first graduates of the ITI and there our next three children were blessed. When our seventh child , Andreas, was born, John Paul II made a trip to Austria and said an open-air Mass in St. Polten, on the hottest day of June. As president of the ITI, Michael got tickets in the front section for us and Tom and Terry Dillon, who were visiting. In his homily John Paul commended the institute and prayed for it to thrive. Although we were not among the faithful invited to go up to the Holy Father after Mass, we decided to try. Michael was on crutches because he had broken his leg into thirteen pieces in a skiing accident. I was dripping with sweat and carrying six-month-old Andreas in my arms, who was clad only in an undershirt. Six enormous bodyguards walked towards us in a very threatening way shaking their finger “No, go back.”  We started to turn around when the bishop signaled to us to come up. He explained who we were and the Holy Father greeted us very kindly and blessed Andreas. We were so happy that he had mentioned the Institute in his homily and blessed us and our work.

We are also members of the Pontifical Council for the Family, which meets once a year and always ends with an audience with the Holy Father. At the last meeting in the fall of 2004, he was pushed in and an assistant had to read his speech for him, he could only speak a few words and then blessed us. Then we could each go up and kiss his hand. We cheered and cheered him and almost the whole council was in tears as he was pushed out because he was so weak but still made the effort to see us and radiate his love to us. That was the last time we saw him alive, but Michael was determined to pay him homage at the funeral.  He called up many contacts in Rome for tickets to the funeral.  Finally an archbishop, who will remain unnamed, said he might be able to get them. Michael flew to Rome, but the archbishop said that he hadn’t been able to get any tickets. Michael pleaded and the archbishop said to call again.  Finally the archbishop said he had two tickets for Michel and a friend but that he had to use very tricky means to get them!  Michael picked up the two tickets and one of them was only printed on one side.  Were they from the trash? They got up early and took a taxi as far as it could go towards St. Peter’s and then got out and walked. They were stopped and displayed the tickets seven times to police, each time carefully showing the tickets together so that the unprinted side didn’t show.  When they got to the square, a huge policeman looked at the tickets carefully and saw the unprinted side. “They are fakes!’ he declared and would not give them back.  Were they fakes? We do not want to know. No amount of pleading would change the guard’s mind, so instead of sitting up above with the press in the logia by the statues they remained below.  But by means of the tickets they had made it into the square and were even fairly close to that plain wooden coffin.   Michael stood for seven hours without noticing any tiredness. The atmosphere of love and faith and the unity of the Church were so strong they were tangible. We were all so grateful that he could be our representative to bid farewell to John Paul the Great.