By Father Ronald Ramson, C.M.
Special to The Texas Catholic
I was recently asked to be interviewed about the Blessed Pope John Paul II and his impact on my vocation and priestly ministry. The supposition was that he may have had something to do with my decision to become a priest. He did not. I was ordained during the pontificate of Blessed John XXIII.
But I have fond memories of Pope John Paul II and his priesthood. I concelebrated Mass with him in four different locations: Chicago, Rome, St. Louis and Paris.
The first occasion was when I was pastor of Saint Vincent de Paul Church in Chicago. Pope John Paul II had come to Chicago at the invitation of Cardinal John Cody. The outdoor Mass was in Grant Park with an estimated 200,000 people in attendance. It was Oct. 5, 1979; the autumn weather was brisk. The pope was in the prime of his life.
Each concelebrant wore a particular white stole; the Secret Service told us that it was a sign of our clearance, and we had to wear it and no other stole. I distributed Holy Communion to the vast crowd.
Scattered among the priests were several of my Vincentian confreres. On the platform was Tom Esselman, then a transient deacon. He had been chosen from a pool of available deacons in the Chicago area to serve Mass with the Holy Father; Tom was delighted, a thrill of a lifetime. Tom now teaches theology in Nairobi, Kenya and is involved in priestly formation.
When I was stationed in Denver and ministering in Saint Thomas Seminary, an invitation came in the mail: the first international priest retreat would be held in Rome in October 1984. A group of us priests was enthusiastic about attending the retreat. We flew in a German charter to Rome. The retreat was an experience that I have never forgotten. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta gave us two talks on the spiritual life; they and she were memorable.
At the conclusion of the retreat, on Oct. 9, 6000 priests concelebrated with Pope John Paul II in Saint Peter’s. Although he spoke to us in Italian, we could feel his passion for priesthood.
Years later, I would concelebrate with the Holy Father several times in Saint Peter’s. I vividly remember one Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.
In the first week of January 1995, I received a phone call from the pope’s secretary, then Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, now Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, the site of the next World Youth Day. I was staying at the North American College. He invited me to be prepared to concelebrate Mass with Pope John Paul II in the morning, and I was to read the gospel in English.
As I read the gospel, whenever I looked up, there was the Holy Father looking right at me, no more than two feet away. I could see that the Holy Father’s health was failing.
After Mass, he chatted with me in the adjoining hall and gave me a rosary which I still cherish. On the wall in my office at the seminary hangs a picture of our conversation. At one point, he had put his hand on my left shoulder and expressed his concern about my priestly ministry.
In St. Louis on Jan. 27, 1997, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in the then Trans World Dome. I concelebrated and distributed Holy Communion in the higher deck of the auditorium. Although the Holy Father’s spirit was alive as ever, it was obvious that his health was not as I had remembered him years before.
Although it was January, the weather was incredible pleasant. The prayers of cloistered Pink Sisters were credited for the fine weather.
Father James Swift, C.M., the new rector of Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving, was chairman of the Papal Liturgy and was in charge of every aspect of the papal ceremonies.
World Youth Day was celebrated in Paris, France in 1997. I concelebrated with Pope John Paul II not at the World Youth Day, but at a special Mass in the venerable Cathedral of Notre Dame on Aug. 22. The occasion was the beatification of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, principal founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
In accordance with the ceremonies, the celebrated Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris requested Pope John Paul II to beatify Frederic Ozanam. The Holy Father gave his consent and the huge crowd in and outside the cathedral went wild with joy. As the miracle for Blessed Frederic’s beatification had occurred in Brazil, there was a good number of Brazilians waving their flags and expressing their joy. As I gazed at Pope John Paul II, I could see that he was having difficulty in his movements but he maintained his determination to be independent.
At the time, I was working as director of formation at the National Office of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul of the United States. While in Paris, I co-authored an article on the beatification for a magazine published by Editions du Signe.
I was charged with securing all the television tape of the beatification from French TV and bringing it back to the States. In Saint Louis we edited the four hours plus of the film and produced a thirty minute presentation. I had the honor of dubbing the English translation over Pope John Paul’s French text. My voice is the pope’s on the film!
I miss the annual letter addressed to us priests from the pen of Blessed Pope John Paul II every Holy Thursday. Every year I expected his letter as if it was addressed to me personally. It offered us much to think about during Holy Week and the days following; the letters were inspirational and challenging. They spoke to our priestly vocation, spirituality, and ministry. I truly miss them!
I am looking forward to what Pope Francis might write us.
Father Ronald Ramson, C.M., is the spiritual director at Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving.