April 8, 2005

Pope John Paul II touched the lives of
four archdiocesan priests

By Sean Gallagher

Although he is the leader of more than 1 billion Catholics, the bishop of Rome also has the power to touch individual lives.

Four diocesan priests personally experienced the impact of Pope John Paul II.

Father Joseph Riedman, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis, was beginning his first trip to Europe as the conclave that would eventually elect Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was meeting at the Vatican.

When he arrived at an airport in New York City, Father Riedman approached a stranger, seeking news from Rome.

“I asked somebody, ‘Do we have a pope yet?’ ” Father Riedman recalled, “and he said, ‘Well yeah, but he has a girl’s name. His name is Karol.’ He said, ‘I think he’s Polish.’ ”

The pilgrimage that Father Riedman was leading was scheduled to visit Rome. Tickets to a papal audience had been acquired long in advance.

Little did he know at the time that he would be attending the first general audience of Pope John Paul II.

In the spring of the following year, Thomas Murphy, then the president of Serra International, a worldwide organization promoting priestly and religious vocations, was called from his home in Indianapolis to visit the Holy Father at the Vatican.

Murphy was ordained to the priesthood on Aug. 17, 1985.

In an interview with The Criterion on the day after the Holy Father’s death, Father Murphy recalled that one of the gifts he gave to the pope was a recording of the Benedictine monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

In just three years, Murphy went from presenting the Holy Father with a musical recording to making his own musical offering in St. Peter’s Basilica when he was asked, then as a seminarian studying at the North American College in Rome, to serve as the organist at a special papal Mass.

It was a Eucharist where the bishops of Argentina, England, Wales and Scotland were gathered. The liturgy served as an important piece in the pope’s diplomatic effort to bring an end to the conflict over the Falklands Islands.

Later, when Father Murphy served as the archdiocesan director for ecumenism, he led a delegation of the leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to Rome and introduced them to Pope John Paul II on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Father Murphy recounted how, growing up in Irvington on the east side of Indianapolis, he was well aware of the divisions in Christianity since the Disciples of Christ headquarters were there at the time.

He said that standing on the steps of St. Peter’s and introducing the leaders of that denomination to the Holy Father “brought back memories of the divisions so early on in Irvington that were being healed by the openness of the Holy Father.”

Father Paul Etienne, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, is able to recall his role in the entirety of Pope John Paul’s 10-day pastoral pilgrimage to the United States in 1987 when he thinks of the now deceased Holy Father.

He had been a college seminarian for three years, ending in 1986. After deciding to end his studies for the priesthood, he took a job at the then National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.

But he was serving in no ordinary position. Etienne was the assistant coordinator for the 1987 pilgrimage. He served as a liaison between the bishops’ conference and the dioceses of the cities where the Holy Father was planning to visit, members of the national and international press, the White House, the Secret Service and the Holy See itself.

To prepare for his duties, Etienne traveled with the pope during his five-day pilgrimage to Australia in 1986. A year later, he accompanied him to 10 cities across the country.

Papal pilgrimages during the pontificate of John Paul II were often a whirlwind of events and meetings with thousands of people. Father Etienne recalled how the pope remained calm throughout it all.

“I was just always in awe of the man,” he said. “The thing that just struck me always about him was this deep abiding sense of peace that was within. You knew that it came from his prayer life.”

The peace that he was able to show, however, did not mean that he was detached from those he met along the way. Father Etienne recalled John Paul’s reaction after a rousing youth rally in Los Angeles during the 1987 pilgrimage.

“He actually came off to the backstage when it was all over with,” Father Etienne said, “and one of the other coordinators was there, and he looked at him and said, ‘So, how did I do?’

“And I said, ‘Oh, Holy Father, you just knocked them dead.’ Of course, you could tell with the twinkle in his eye, he knew that he did. And he just kind of grinned and laughed and said, ‘Oh, you think so?’ because he knew he nailed that one.”

But Father Etienne was quick to emphasize that the ultimate purpose in all his meetings was to open all those with whom he met to an encounter with Jesus Christ.

“He just was always about Christ,” Father Etienne said. “He was not afraid to speak about the sacrifice that was entailed in being a faithful follower of Christ. But he was also one who was able to touch upon the joy of being a follower of Christ. And he knew that from his own experience. He was a man of profound relationship with Christ, and it showed in everything that he did and everything that he preached. I got just a glimpse of that in being with him for those ten days in 1987.”

That extended encounter with the Holy Father led Etienne to return to the seminary. He was ordained in 1992.

A year after his ordination, Father Etienne was called to help with one more papal pilgrimage: World Youth Day in Denver in August 1993.

Many of the youth who were drawn to the Holy Father throughout his pontificate later became priests and religious. One of them is Father Justin Martin, associate pastor of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis.

Born just two years before John Paul II was elected, Father Martin’s vocational discernment was in part inspired by the late pope. He studied for the priesthood at the North American College in Rome and met the pope on a few occasions.

“His strength and his zeal for prayer and for peace and for prosperity for all people is what drove me,” he said. “He had a presence about him. When you were with him, that was Christ.”

Father Martin was ordained in 2002, at the height of the priestly sexual abuse crisis. During those trying times, he turned to the pope for strength, saying that his constant message of “Be not afraid” had a “real impact” on him.

Those were the words with which Pope John Paul II began his pontificate. And he lived that message in his final days as the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease would finally take his life.

Father Murphy, who met John Paul soon after his election and later served at his Masses, now copes with that same ailment and is encouraged by the late pope’s example.

“I have Parkinson’s and I’m living with Parkinson’s as a priest,” he said. “I’m not suffering from Parkinson’s. The Holy Father was an inspiration.

“If the Holy Father, with Parkinson’s, can lead the world’s Church,” Father Murphy said, “I can certainly endeavor to be a good parish priest here in Indian-

Over the course of his 26-year pontificate, Pope John Paul II was the leader of a Church that counted hundreds of millions in its fold. Yet he also touched the lives of untold individuals, including many here in the archdiocese.

Just hours after the pope died, Father Etienne spoke about his feelings regarding the passing of a man who played such an influential role in his life.

“There’s that real sense of joy and gratitude for he who is, who he’s been and what he’s done for us,” Father Etienne said. “And because of that, there’s that real sense of loss as well.” †

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