October 16, 1978, Karol Wojtyla becomes the first Polish pope.
A week and a day later, I was born.
And named Karolina in his honor.
I never had the privilege of having an audience with Pope John Paul II. I have never even been to the Vatican. There was word when Alex and I were planning our wedding that if he received a wedding invitation from a Polish couple, he would send an official Vatican wedding card. I guess he had already become too ill for this tradition by the time we got married in May of 2003, a little less than 2 years before his death.
I remember the days leading up to April 2, 2005 vividly. I became aware of his imminent death through the television. I kept vigil with the tens of thousands of those in attendance in St. Peter’s Square, watching the news coverage every free moment I had, well into the night before finally allowing myself to get some sleep. I was afraid of being away from my virtual vigil at the moment of his death. I knew that I was experiencing the departure of a great saint, and that this was a historic moment.
Many tears were cried, yet I knew JPII was going to a better place. What was really behind my mourning, perhaps, was the sheer shock of a world with someone else as pope. John Paul the Great was the only pope I had ever known.
During this time, I had been having various doubts in my faith, yet a sense of loyalty to JPII kept me from really doing anything about it. Once he passed away, I no longer felt obligated to remain Catholic. Thus began my active spiritual seeker journey, finally resulting in my return home to the Catholic church in 2011.
So what sparks this post now? JPII’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, has announced his resignation as of February 28th.
Many people questioned why John Paul II didn’t resign, once his health started to deteriorate. I also didn’t understand why he wouldn’t retire – a term I associated with a permanent vacation, something I felt was well deserved after over two decades of shepherding the worldwide Catholic community. It wasn’t until much later that I finally appreciated his intention.
Knowing that he was in the public eye, JPII answered God’s call to be an example of enduring suffering, of dying in dignity. He allowed himself to be an example for others who suffer, giving them a model for their difficult situation in life. Modern society aims to pretend suffering doesn’t exist, or worse, to get rid of it at all costs, even sin or death.
But the current pope, Benedict, clearly has a different calling from God. With his resignation, I await the next conclave in a totally different spirit, one of elated anticipation of what God has in store for the next pope, and by extension, for all of Christ’s holy church.
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.”