Saint John Paul II’s Enduring Presence

Photo Credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring - April 2014

Photo Credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring – April 2014

Saint John Paul II – whose feast day we celebrate today – has been an on-going presence in the Church of Washington impacting lives in a special way since the fall of 2011, when we opened a new archdiocesan seminary named in his honor.

After he was elected pope in 1978, this holy man called for a renewal of seminary life around the world, believing that the renewal of the Church would begin in the renewal of the seminary. Consequently, the Holy Father asked for a visitation of all the seminaries in the United States and I was invited to be a part of that effort, serving as the general secretary for the seminary visits. Pope John Paul also convoked a Synod on the formation of priests, and out of that Synod came the document Pastores Dabo Vobis – Latin for “I Will Give You Shepherds” – which has been the norm for priestly formation across the universal Church since then.

Thus, it seemed so appropriate that the Chief Shepherd who had focused on seminaries as the font of renewal of the Church should be the patron of our new seminary. Initially named “Blessed John Paul II Seminary,” it was happily renamed as “Saint John Paul II Seminary” after his canonization by Pope Francis in April 2014.

The inaugural class of 20 seminarians who studied there when it first opened, and the 49 seminarians studying in that expanded facility now (including 27 from our archdiocese and 22 from other dioceses) know they are being trained to become the next generation of priests who will bring Christ’s love, hope and mercy to their flock, wherever they are sent. These young men also know that in their patron saint, they have a role model for total self-giving, a priest and pope who gave his life as a servant of God’s people, as a servant of Jesus Christ in His Church, as one configured to Christ as head of that body, but for the service of that body.

Saint John Paul II’s unforgettable words in his homily at his inaugural Mass as pope, “Open wide the doors for Christ,” continues to offer a clarion call for all of us to open our hearts and our lives to Jesus. The Holy Father did this throughout his priestly ministry, including nearly 27 years as pontiff, when as a missionary of Christ, he brought the Good News to 130 different countries and millions of people.

The year after his election, Pope John Paul visited Washington during his first pastoral visit to the United States. Archbishop of Washington at the time, Cardinal William Baum, was host and he summarized the visit as a moment of grace.

Fittingly, after celebrating the historic canonization Mass of Saint Junípero Serra last month, Pope Francis visited the seminarians at the Saint John Paul II Seminary near the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Holy Father, demonstrating the “joy of the Gospel” for which he is known, praised the seminarians for listening to and answering God’s call, and he encouraged them to adore Jesus in their lives and work. He also said that good priests go to bed tired each night, after serving their people. Having been at Pope Francis’ side for much of his whirlwind visit here, I can attest that the Holy Father follows his own advice.

By his actions and his words, Pope Francis teaches priests – and future priests – the importance of knowing, loving, serving and empathizing with their flock. That quality also marked the priesthood and papacy of his predecessor Saint John Paul II, whose legacy has spawned generations of “JPII priests.” This pope, whom we happily call “Great,” inspires our next generation of priests to be “good shepherds” as well, just as he was, bringing Jesus and his Gospel to their flock – wherever God sends them – by opening the doors of their hearts wide to Christ.