Pope John Paul II changed my life

By Raymond L. Flynn

BOSTON, Sunday, May 1, 2011 -- Nobody ever accused me of being a saint when I was a kid in South Boston. But when I grew up, I was lucky enough to know two of them and they changed my life forever.

The first was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. We built housing together in Boston for unwed mothers and homeless families. I even worked in her soup kitchen in Rome and visited her in her home for the dying in Calcutta.

The other, Pope John Paul II — who moves one step from sainthood with today’s beatification Mass in Rome — I got to know better in a relationship that began with his first visit to Boston in 1969 and ended with his death in 2005.

I was born in the Polish section of Southie and was trying to become the neighborhood’s state representative at the time of the future pope’s visit. I was introduced to him by a neighbor I once sold newspapers to, Richard Cardinal Cushing. (The cardinal was a pretty good tipper, as I recall.) John Paul II was a cardinal then, in town on a pastoral mission. Over the next four decades, as mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, I had many chances to witness firsthand his brilliance and kindness.

John Paul II’s greatness lay in his spirituality, humility and compassion. He was also blessed with a charisma like none other I’ve ever seen. His gentle, understanding smile drew people to him.

But this deeply spiritual priest was a rugged man of the world as well. As an underground seminarian in German-occupied Poland, Karol Wojtyla resisted the Nazis. By 1978, he was inspiring the people of Poland to stand up to the ruthless Soviet Empire, imploring them to “be not afraid.”

I stood next to Lech Walesa on a flatbed truck when he defied the Soviets and their Polish puppets by addressing thousands of striking union shipyard workers in Gdansk. Wearing a badge with pictures of John Paul II and Our Lady of Czestochowa beneath the word Solidarity, Walesa said, “The Pope has given us the courage to stand up to any force to defend our God-given human rights.”

Sitting next to John Paul II once on a return flight to Rome, I told him that my parents and so many others in Boston used to say the Rosary every night to Our Lady of Fatima for the “conversion of Russia.” John Paul II looked at me and said: “God answered your parents’ prayers.”

The Pope had a profound relationship with Our Lady of Fatima. He believed she saved him from an assassin’s gunfire in 1981. Years later, he had one of the bullets that struck him placed in the jeweled crown on her statue in Fatima.

The John Paul II I knew was a man very much of both this world and the next, much like Christ. Small wonder he stands poised today to take his place alongside Peter, John, Paul and the other great saints of the Church.

This article was oringinally posted in the Boston Globe. Reposted with permission from the author.

Raymond L. Flynn is an advisor to Catholics for the Common Good. He is former mayor of Boston and Ambassador to the Vatican. He is the co-author of the best seller “John Paul II, A Personal Portrait of the Pope and The Man” and author of “The Accidental Pope: A Novel.”

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