[THE FOLLOWING IS THE TRANSLATION OF THE ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN POLISH IN POLAND BY THE ORATORIAN FATHERS OF ST. PHILIP NERI, IN THEIR SPECIAL EDITION TO COMMEMORATE 45 YEARS OF THE BEGINNING OF THE PONTIFICATE OF ST. JOHN PAUL II]
It was January 1979. I had just turned 8 years old and I was in the 2nd grade in elementary school. For the first time, the Pope elected a few months earlier, in October, was on an apostolic trip. His destination, the country where I was born: Mexico. He traveled to participate in the conference of the bishops of Latin America (CELAM). Until then, the world was not used to seeing popes travel. For John Paul II, this trip would mark an inflection point in his incipient pontificate. In Mexico he would discover the Lord's call to go all over the world, as he sent his Apostles before ascending into heaven —over time, he would be dubbed "the pilgrim Pope."
The day John Paul II arrived in Mexico City, January 26, everything was expectation and excitement. We must bear in mind that, back then, there was no internet or social media, so the information and photos of the pope were scarce, not as quotidian as it is today. So the way to get to know the Pope was to see him on television or better yet, go out on the street and see him pass by.
Everyone was surprised by his gesture of humility and good will when he got off the plane and kissed Mexican soil —that would become his signature gesture every time he traveled to any country for the first time.
When I got home from school, I was able to watch him on television with my family, celebrating Mass in the Metropolitan Cathedral. From there, he would go to the apostolic nunciature and his route passed a few blocks from my house. A passenger bus was adapted. The ceiling was removed and a pedestal was placed where His Holiness could stand, blessing all the people —that was the first version of what would later be the popemobile.
Millions of Mexicans ran to the streets to see him pass by. My parents and grandparents carried stools out of the kitchen so that two of my younger sisters and I could stand atop them. My youngest sister was barely a five-month-old baby. We stood on the corner of our street. There were a lot of people around. Suddenly, we heard closer and closer the screams from the crowd. A policeman passed on his motorcycle and then others and suddenly there he was! Pope John Paul II! He had a smile full of tenderness and a penetrating gaze. Standing on his roofless bus, holding a bar with his left hand, with his right he turned to one side and the other blessing us.
People shouted with thrill “¡VIVA EL PAPA!, ¡VIVA EL PAPA!” I heard my grandfather, who was next to me, screaming just like everyone else. I wanted to scream, but I couldn't. The emotion paralyzed me and I couldn't say anything. Literally, John Paul II left me speechless. I felt in my heart as if Jesus himself was passing in front of me. Even as I write these lines, 44 years later, I shudder and my eyes are in tears.
It was love at first sight. The Pope fell in love with Mexico and the Mexicans with John Paul II. He told us words that resonated: "Of my Homeland it is usually said: Poland Semper fidelis. I also want to be able to say: Mexico Semper fidelis! Mexico always faithful!" In addition, he spoke to us in the almost perfect Spanish that he learned in as a young poet in order to savor the poetry of Saint John of the Cross, recognized as the best poet of the Hispanic language.
We were able to see it one more time and my feeling was the same. At 8 years old, those ephemeral encounters with John Paul II had given me the full conviction that it was worth being a Catholic and living as such. Since then, I have taken my faith very seriously.
His departure was sad and at the same time, exciting. The Pope asked us to go up to the rooftops and say goodbye to him with mirrors when his flight took off. The pilot flew over the city twice and as the Holy Father passed over our houses, we all pointed our mirrors at the plane. Then, he left... John Paul II stayed in my heart in a very special way. It was the beginning of an friendship in pectore that would last a lifetime.
On Wednesday nights, I did not miss in the news the weekly report given from the Vatican by the Mexican correspondent Valentina Alazraki, a prominent journalist who became an endearing friend of John Paul II. That's how I learned what he was doing, saying and teaching and already in high school, I began to study his encyclicals.
The second time he traveled to Mexico, I was 19 years old and was a college student. It was 1990 and we were in finals. That didn't stop me from taking to the streets once again. And once again, the same thing happened to me. People now shouted “¡JUAN PABLO II TE QUIERE TODO EL MUNDO! (John Paul II, all the world loves you!)“, but I couldn't. I was mute and my heart was palpitating at a thousand beats hour. His sweet eyes as he passed by shuddered me to the deepest. It was then that I understood the power of the shadow of Saint. Peter referred by Luke in The Acts of the Apostles (5:15).
At the university, between classes, I listened to all the Pope's events through my walkman. This is how I heard John Paul II's meeting with the youth, in which he told us, "You have in your hands, as a fragile treasure, the hope of the future... Do not lose hope, you are pilgrims of hope." I always remembered those words and later, when in another meeting with the youth the Pope told us, "You are the hope of the Church. You are my hope," I took them to heart forever. I promised myself that I would not disappoint the Pope. This is why I have devoted so much of my time, since my youth, to the work on adult faith formation.
I was no longer a child, nor a young man. I was now a 28-year-old adult. Shortly before I got married, in January 1999, the Pope returned to Mexico. He already looked old and tired, but unstoppable. That time I saw him on the streets more than ever, several times together with Lulu, my fiancée. I confess, on more than one occasion I arrived late to the office because I preferred to stop near the nunciature to see him pass by when leaving for his first event of the day. As he passed by, people yelled at him “¡JUAN PABLO, HERMANO, YA ERES MEXICANO! (John Paul, our brother, you’ve become a Mexican!)” In an exciting and memorable event at Estadio Azteca, where two Soccer World Cup opening games and two finals have been played, in 1970 and 1986, the Pope told us words that we would never forget: "Today I can say to myself: You are Mexican!"
The morning he returned to Rome, I stopped near the nunciature. I was surrounded by men in a jacket and tie, because from there we would go to work. When the popemobile came out, the only way to see the Pope, for the last time, was jumping over the crowd. Something very curious and at the same time very beautiful happened. Without thinking about it and without asking for permission, we began to jump leaning on the shoulders of the two next to us to get higher. When we fell down, those next to us did the same, leaping while leaning on our shoulders. And so, like pistons that went up and down, all in a jacket and a tie, jumping and helping us jump, we were able to say goodbye.
I didn't go to the office as I should. I preferred to rush to my house to watch his farewell at the airport on TV. John Paul II brought back the lyrics of a song and left us all with tears in our eyes: "I'm leaving, but I'm not leaving. I'm leaving but I'm not absent, because my heart stays here."
A few weeks before getting married, during that trip of the Pope, I made the decision that my first son would be named Juan Pablo, so that one day, when Karol Wojtyla went to heaven and became a saint —I had no doubt he would—, my son would have a great patron saint to watch over him.
We got married in February and in June we moved to the United States, where we have lived ever since. Three years later, in 2002, our son was born in February and his name was Juan Pablo. The Pope then announced that he would go to Mexico in June to canonize Juan Diego, to whom our Lady of Guadalupe appeared. His Holiness kept her a special love because her dark skin reminded him of his beloved Black Madonna of Cheztochowa. We then decided to travel to Mexico and take our little Juan Pablo so that the Pope would bless him as he passed through the streets.
We did so. I was shocked to see the same thing always happened. We stood on the sidewalk surrounded by thousands of people, under the summer heat, waiting for hours for the Pope to pass in his popemobile. After so long, our baby was desperate, crying at the top of his lungs because of the distress caused by the heat and by being surrounded by so many people screaming. Every time the popemobile approached, people began to scream even louder and our little Juan Pablo cried with more desperation. But when Pope John Paul II passed in front of us, our baby became instantly peaceful despite the fact that the cries of the people were to the maximum at that moment. Every time we saw the Pope, our baby entered into peace after crying desperately. Without a doubt, he himself felt the shadow of Saint Peter, which covered him as the Holy Father passed through the street.
I knew that would be the last time I would see the Pope in person. He also knew it was his farewell from Mexico. It was sad to see him leave on his plane for the last time. But sadder was the day he died, April 2, 2005. Like millions of people around the world, I was glued to the television for more than 24 hours watching what was happening in St. Peter's Square, until Cardinal Leonardo Sandri announced that John Paul II had passed away —That was the saddest day of my entire life.
I fell in love with John Paul II at the age of 8; at 19 he made me decide to devote my life to the apostolic work; about to get married, he renewed my conviction in my Catholic faith; and being a father, he blessed and gave peace to my baby who bore his name. My personal life, my life of faith and my apostolic life were marked by the Pope's visits to Mexico and by his teachings throughout his pontificate.
My second child, Marcos Iván, had just been born in 2006, when a redemptorist priest invited me to lead a pilgrimage with him to Poland "Following the footsteps of the pilgrim pope." We went to Cheztochowa and the basilica of Divine Mercy. I enjoyed every moment visiting his apartment in Wadowice, imagining how he lived with his father and brother and I sat for a long time contemplating the ceiling of the church where he was baptized, appreciating the paintings that represent each of his encyclicals. Of course, I didn't leave there without trying a delicious kremówka papiezka! The Pope's favorite dessert. We went to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, as Karol Wojtyła did with his father and also to the cathedral of Krakow, which was his cathedral as archbishop.
On that trip, John Paul II would to lead me to another Polish saint, marking a cornerstone in my apostolate: Saint Maximilian Kolbe. A day before the last in Poland I was able to contemplate the cell in which he died in Auschwitz —I felt something very strong in my heart, not knowing what it was. The next day, we celebrated Mass in the chapel built by Maximilian in Niepokalanow, where he celebrated Mass. Serving at the altar, I felt the call to consecrate myself to the Immaculate Conception and join this way the Militia of the Immaculata. It is since then that my apostolate of evangelization has been done through radio, the written press and the internet, following the example of Maximilian Kolbe.
That pilgrimage to Poland culminated in Rome, visiting the original burial site of John Paul II in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica. We were able to visit it after celebrating Mass at 7 in the morning. It was not yet open to the public, so I was able to pray in front of it for a long time. I will never forget how, before the tomb of John Paul II, I felt inside me exactly the same as I felt every time I saw him pass through the streets in Mexico.
The next day, I would meet Benedict XVI and it was like a change of baton. John Paul II had prepared me to dedicate the rest of my life to an apostolate of evangelization in the media, which I would now begin under the pontificate of Benedict XVI, to now continue with Pope Francis.
My personal story with St. John Paul II has been one of endearing friendship, deep love and abundant learning —It was John Paul II who taught me to be passionate about my faith!
Mauricio Pérez is a computer scientist, journalist and writer. He works in a computer network technology company and is dedicated to evangelization through the media as an apostolate. He has received five national awards of Catholic journalism in the United States. He was born in Mexico and has lived in the United States since 1999 with his wife and two sons.