In meetings with the Polish pope over 25 years Fr Michael Collins got to see a side of him that most people never saw
I first met Pope John Paul II in late June 1979. A friend and I had hitchhiked from Dublin to Rome, where we stayed at the Convent of San Clemente near the Colosseum for two weeks. We had both commenced studies for the priesthood the previous year. One morning we received an invitation from an Irish priest, Fr John Magee, to meet the Pope. Fr Magee had been private secretary to Pope Paul VI from 1974 until the pontiff’s death four years later and had also served during the 33-day pontificate of Pope John Paul I. Our introduction to Fr Magee had been arranged by an Irish Dominican, Fr Lambert Greenan, the English-language editor of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, and a friar at San Clemente.
The pontiff was staying for a brief period in the Tower of St John in the Vatican gardens while his apartments were being renovated. Fr Magee had arranged for us to be escorted through the Vatican gardens and up to the tower, which was built as a fortification for Pope Nicholas V in the mid-15th century.
The round tower opens into a hallway, in front of which is set a lift. The Irish priest came down in the lift first to greet us. He returned to fetch the pontiff, and about quarter of an hour later the lift door opened once more and out stepped Pope John Paul. I recall how he walked into the hallway, exuding energy and cheerfulness. We were introduced to him along with other guests. After a short greeting, the Pope suggested we have our photograph taken by his photographer. Having blessed us, he then went out through the door, where a car was waiting to take him to the Apostolic Palace for the day’s audiences.
Fr Magee also got into the car, and I looked out the door to signal my appreciation for his kindness in arranging the meeting. He discreetly nodded to me. The Pope, however, leaned forward and, with a broad smile on his face, gave me the “thumbs-up” sign.
Over the next 25 years, I met Pope John Paul on some 30 occasions. Several times in the early years I met him in the gardens of Castelgandolfo, when I spent my summers as a seminarian working as a guide in St Peter’s Basilica.
I became a friend of Fr Magee, who often invited me out for the afternoon to Castelgandolfo, where we walked in the magnificent gardens. It was a most relaxed atmosphere and on one occasion I recall how we happened upon the pope who was sitting at a table reading a book. We retreated before we disturbed his concentration, but I remember being surprised to see him wearing white tennis shoes underneath his soutane.
Often in the evenings, while in his country residence, he invited guests to join him in the gardens after supper. These were informal gatherings, usually made up of young people. The pope would sit in a wicker armchair while we sat on the ground around him, asking questions and sometimes exchanging jokes. When the evening ended, around 10.30, we escorted the pope back to the villa where we said goodnight. I remember also on one occasion noticing that the pope wore aftershave, which struck me as rather odd. Of course, it was perfectly natural. I was usually fortunate to get a lift back into Rome with Arturo Mari, the pontiff’s photographer, or some Swiss Guards who had finished their duty and were returning to the Vatican.
After ordination, I often concelebrated Mass either in his country residence or in the Vatican. What struck me was the profound silence in the chapel. It was so different from the vast public Masses celebrated before millions around the globe. When Mass ended the Pope spent 15 minutes in silent thanksgiving, kneeling at his prie-dieu in front of the tabernacle. He then came into the corridor where he met his visitors.
I noticed that the Pope enjoyed when people spoke to him as so many were overcome with emotion and simply burst into tears. As a linguist, he enjoyed bantering in various languages. On one occasion I was with a fellow classmate, the nephew of Cardinal Desmond Connell of Dublin. I told him that this was the Archbishop of Dublin’s nephew.
“Ah!” he said with mock surprise, looking at the young man. “His nephew is the Archbishop of Dublin?” I explained that it was his uncle. “So, now you tell me he is the uncle of the Archbishop of Dublin?” he replied. I think he enjoyed my discomfort.
On another occasion, I was with John McCaffrey from Northern Ireland. We both had met the pope many times and John asked the pope to autograph a photograph. The pope sat down and good humouredly signed the image for his cheeky Irish guests. John is now a fundraiser and assisted Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain last year.
Meeting the pope so often, I noticed tiny details. I was surprised that the upper buttons of his soutane always showed signs of wear, as did the piping around his collar. Surely there was somebody who would mend these for him, I thought. I also noticed that when he met individuals in a line, he appeared to look not at the person presented but to the next visitor. Mgr Vincent Tran Ngoc Thu, his Vietnamese secretary, told me that the Pope was deaf in one ear, and that this was his way of straining to hear in his good ear.
I also observed that when he met people, many of whom spoke different languages, he repeated the last words which they had said. “Holy Father, I am from Paris,” one might say. The reply was usually: “Ah, Paris. God bless Paris.” It was a way of conserving his mental energies.
Pope John Paul had very strong hands. His mother’s family came from farming stock and his handshake was firm. I noticed that he had developed a tremor in his left hand while celebrating Mass in Castelgandolfo in July 1991. It was the first sign of the Parkinson’s disease which was to destroy his frame.
I met Sister Tobiana on several occasions. She was one of the five Polish nuns who looked after the papal apartments. She was a nurse and I was deeply struck by her sincere love for the pope and especially the care she showed him in his old age and illness. It was to her that he whispered his last words on earth and it was she who held his hand as he “slipped away to the House of the Lord”.
As the years went by, the strong, athletic man shrank in size but he grew in my appreciation. His acceptance of physical illness and pain was extraordinary and his sheer determination was impressive.
The last time I saw him was in the papal apartments one Sunday evening six months before he died. His face was now a mask. Yet behind the pain-filled eyes was the soul of a man who burned with a deep love of Jesus Christ. He remains my inspiration and I realise that I am blessed to have met him.
Fr Michael Collins’s book, John Paul II: The Path to Sainthood, will be published by Columba Press on May 15. Visit Fathermichaelcollins.com for more details