Twice-told tales

Tuesday 6 May 2014 — Cathedral Church of Fall River — St. Pius X Awards 

People have been sharing fond memories and stories about St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII. Here’s a couple more.

I was a young priest when the announcement was made that Boston’s Archbishop Humberto Medeiros, originally a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, had been named cardinal. A delegation traveled from Fall River to Rome for the occasion. Among them was my pastor, Father Bill O’Reilly. Before the ceremony, the future cardinals waited in separate reception rooms in the Apostolic Palace. The pope wanted to greet each one privately. 

With Archbishop Medeiros that day were their Excellencies, Bishops Daniel Cronin, James Connolly, and James Gerrard. Enter His Holiness, Pope Paul VI, followed shortly thereafter by a gatecrasher — Father Bill O’Reilly. Father O’Reilly had bumbled past the Swiss Guard and security personnel and just opened the door and walked in. Father O’ Reilly, in his gregarious manner, threw his arm around the pope. The startled pope looked up into the beaming face of the six-foot Father O’Reilly. The papal photographer snapped a picture. My pastor returned to the rectory with the photo. For Father O’Reilly, it was priceless; for Pope Paul VI, not so much. 

Skipping ahead, I was invited by a priest-friend to be his travel companion. He was going to Poland to give a retreat at the invitation of an archbishop. We were welcome to stay in the episcopal residence. But the retreat had to be postponed when Pope Paul VI died unexpectedly. The archbishop rushed to Rome for the election of the next pope. That turned out to be Pope John Paul I. When the archbishop returned, the retreat was rescheduled. But then there was another unexpected event. Pope John Paul I died. The archbishop headed back to Rome. The priest retreat was eventually canceled due to the fact that the Archbishop of Krakow found himself elected Pope John Paul II. Our paths never did cross — until later.

Pope John Paul II was visiting the United States. He intended to celebrate Mass in Philadelphia. Somehow yours truly received an invitation. Off I flew to Philadelphia, by way of Windsor Locks, Conn. We were waiting on the tarmac for clearance when alarms sounded. A tornado was heading straight for the airport. The pilot was ordered to get the plane airborne immediately. Fortunately, this maneuver got us out of harm’s way.

Back in Philadelphia, the airport was already closed as a crowd awaited the plane carrying Pope John Paul II. Because my flight was in a state of emergency, Philadelphia allowed us to land. Nobody told the crowd. As I stepped from the plane, the TV commentators remarked, “His Holiness seems to have lost weight and he’s grown taller, too.” The people began cheering and waving flags. That’s the day one million people mistook me for a saint. Not a single person has made that mistake since. 

I jumped in a cab and said, “Get me out of here!” “Are you nuts?” responded the cabbie. “There are huge crowds lining the streets. Are you the only one in Philadelphia who doesn’t know the pope is on his way?” “Oh, I know. I was there yesterday in Boston. He was in D.C. today. Tomorrow I will concelebrate Mass with him in the civic center.” “Why didn’t you tell me you were in the papal entourage?” and off we sped, horn honking. 

When I arrived at the hotel room, I was exhausted. I closed the curtains and fell asleep. But not for long; there was banging at my door. There stood five people excitedly explaining something in French. I don’t speak French. I eventually figured out that they were from the magazine Paris Marche. They said something about the pope being downstairs. I invited them in. They threw open the shades. Sure enough, there was Pope John Paul celebrating Mass in the square under my window. The photographer snapped some excellent shots. I couldn’t get back to sleep.

The next day, I was off to the civic center. A squad of monsignors herded us into line. I ended up on stage just one seat from the pope. I noticed the priest next to me was rather gruff. He growled when I extended my hand at the sign of peace. He didn’t seem to know the Mass prayers, either. Then I noticed the firearm sticking out from under his robes. He was undercover with the Secret Service.

During Mass, I was looking around, taking it all in. So was the pope. He looked in my general direction. Our eyes met. The pope gave me a little smile and moved his hand in a blessing. I blessed him back. That was the day I blessed a saint. Sometimes I wonder, dear readers, how I get myself into these situations.

Now when I pray through the intercession of St. John Paul II, I can just hear him in Heaven saying, “You again?”

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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