A Day of Grace…


Audience with Pope Benedict XVI — Presenting the Pope my music

 

Eight years ago in 2005, my wife came bounding into the room with some shocking news: “Cardinal Ratzinger has just been elected Pope!” Today, the news is no less shocking that, after several centuries, our times will see the first pope to resign his office. My mailbox this morning has questions from ‘what does this mean in the scope of the “end times”?’, to ‘will there now be a “black pope“?’, etc. Rather than elaborate or speculate at this time, the first thought that comes to mind is the unexpected meeting I had with Pope Benedict in October of 2006, and the way it all unfolded…. From a letter to my readers on October 24th, 2006:

 

DEAR friends,

I write you this evening from my hotel just a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square. These have been grace-filled days. Of course, many of you are wondering if I met the Pope… 

The reason for my trip here was to sing at a concert October 22nd to honor the 25th anniversary of the John Paul II Foundation, as well as the 28th anniversary of the late pontiff’s installation as pope on October 22nd, 1978. 

 

A CONCERT FOR POPE JOHN PAUL II

As we rehearsed several times over the course of two days for the event which will be televised nationally in Poland next week, I began to feel out of place. I was surrounded by some of the greatest talents in Poland, incredible singers and musicians. At one point, I went outside to get some fresh air and walk along an ancient Roman wall. I began to pine, “Why am I here, Lord? I don’t fit in amongst these giants!” I cannot tell you how I know, but I sensed John Paul II reply in my heart, “That is why you are here, because you are so small.”

At once, I began to experience the profound fatherhood that marked the pontificate of this Servant of God John Paul II. I have tried to be his faithful son throughout the years of my ministry. I would scan the daily Vatican news headlines, looking for a gem here, a nugget of wisdom there, some little breeze of the Spirit blowing from the lips of JPII. And when it caught the sails of my heart and mind, it would steer the course of my own words and even music in new directions.

And that is why I came to Rome. To sing, above all, Song For Karol which I penned the day JPII died. As I stood on the stage two nights ago and looked out into a sea of mostly Polish faces, I realized I was standing among the dearest of the late Pope’s friends. The nuns who cooked his meals, the priests and bishops whom he fathered, the unknown faces of the elderly and young who shared private and precious moments with him.

And I heard in my heart the words, “I want you to meet my best friends.

And one by one, I began to meet them. At the end of the concert, all the artists and musicians and readers of JPII’s poetry filled the stage to sing one last song. I was standing at the back, hiding behind the saxophone player who delighted me all evening with his jazz riffs. I looked behind me, and the floor directors were frantically motioning me to move forward. As I began to step forward, the group suddenly parted in the middle for no reason, and I had no choice but to move to the front — center stage. Oy. That’s when the Polish Papal Nuncio came up and gave a few remarks. And then we began to sing. As we did, he stood beside me, grabbed my hand, and raised it in the air as we all sang “Abba, Father” in three languages. What a moment! You have not experienced singing until you have experienced the intense faith, nationalism, and loyalty to John Paul II of the Polish people! And here I was, singing alongside the Polish Papal Nuncio!

 

THE TOMB OF JOHN PAUL II

Because I am staying so close to the Vatican, I have been able to pray at John Paul II’s tomb four times thus far. There is a tangible grace and presence there which has moved more than me to tears.

I knelt down behind a cordoned area, and began to pray the Rosary beside a group of nuns with the Sacred Heart emblazoned on their habits. Later on, a gentleman came up to me and said, “Did you see those nuns?” Yes, I replied. “Those were the nuns who served John Paul II!”

 

PREPARING TO MEET “PETER”

I woke up early in the morning the day after the concert, and felt the need to immerse myself in prayer. After breakfast, I entered St. Peter’s Basilica and attended Mass perhaps seventy meters from the tomb of Peter, and at an altar that John Paul II was sure to have said Mass at several times in his 28 year reign.

After visiting JPII’s tomb and St. Peter’s sepulchre once more, I headed to St. Peter’s Square to meet with my Polish contacts. We were about to enter the Vatican for a papal audience with Pope Benedict XVI, one of JPII’s dear friends and allies. Keep in mind, a papal audience can be anything from a few individuals to a few hundred. There were several hundred of us heading to the square that morning.

While waiting for all the pilgrims to gather, I saw a face I knew I recognized. Then it struck me—it was the young actor who played John Paul II in the recent movie of his life, Karol: A Man Who Became Pope. I had just watched his movie the week before! I went up to Piotr Adamczyk and embraced him. He had been at the concert the night before. So I gave him a copy of Song for Karol which he asked me to sign. Here was John Paul II’s cinematic character wanting my little autograph! And with that, we entered the Vatican.

 

A PAPAL AUDIENCE

After passing several stern-faced Swiss Guards, we entered a long, narrow hall lined with old wooden chairs on either side of a central aisle. At the front were white steps leading up to a white chair. That is where Pope Benedict was soon to sit.

We were not expecting to meet Pope Benedict personally by now. As one priest told me, “Mother Teresa’s successor and many Cardinals are still waiting to see him!” True, it isn’t Pope Benedict’s style to meet and greet as extensively as his predecessor. So an American seminarian and I took a seat near the back of the hall. “At least we’d get a brief up-close glance at Peter’s successor as he entered,” we reasoned.

The anticipation grew as we neared 12 o’clock when the Holy Father would arrive. The air was electric. Singers dressed in traditional Polish clothing began to belt out ethnic tunes. The joy in the room was palpable — and hearts were palpitating. 

Just then, I caught a glance of Monsignor Stefan of the JPII Foundation, the man who had invited me to come to Rome. He had been hurriedly walking up and down the center aisle as if he was looking for someone. Catching my eye, he pointed at me and said, “You! Yes, come with me!” He motioned for me to walk around the barricades and follow him. Suddenly, I was walking up the aisle towards that white chair! Monsignor led me to the first few rows, where I found myself sitting near several other artists, including the fiery American Franciscan, Fr. Stan Fortuna.

 

BENEDICTO!

Suddenly, the entire room rose to its feet. Amidst song and the chanting of “Benedicto!”, the small frame of a very large soul began to walk along the wooden barricade on our side of the room. 

My thoughts drifted back to the day he was elected. I had slept in that morning after working all night in the studio on Let the Lord Know, my recent CD to commemorate the “Year of the Eucharist”, which JPII proclaimed.  My wife suddenly burst through the bedroom door, bounded onto the bed and exclaimed, “We have a pope!!” I sat up, instantly awake. “Who is it!?”

“Cardinal Ratzinger!”

I began to weep with joy. In fact, for three days, I was filled with a supernatural joy. Yes, this new pope would not only lead us, but lead us well. In fact, I had also made a point of finding his quotes as well. Little did I know that he would become the next successor of Peter.

“There he is,” said Bozena, a friend and Polish Canadian whom I was now standing beside. She had met Pope John Paul II four times, and was largely responsible for getting my music into the hands of officials in Rome. Now she was standing a mere foot away from Pope Benedict. I watched as the 79 year old pontiff met each person within his reach. His hair is thick and perfectly white. He never stopped smiling, but said little. He would bless pictures or Rosaries as he went along, shaking hands, quietly acknowledging with his eyes each lamb before him.

Many people were standing on chairs and pushing toward the barricade (to the chagrin of Vatican officials). If I stuck my hand in between the people beside me, he may have taken it. But something inside told me not too. Again, I sensed JPII’s presence with me.

“Go on, it’s not too late!” said one woman, pushing me toward the pontiff. “No,” I said. “It is enough to see Peter.

 

THE UNEXPECTED

After a brief message to the Foundation, Pope Benedict rose from his chair and gave us a final blessing. The room fell silent, and we listened as the Latin benediction echoed through the hall. “What a grace”, I thought. “Blessed by the successor of the fisherman from Capernaum.”

As the Holy Father descended the steps, we knew it was time to say goodbye. But suddenly he stopped, and the front three rows on the opposite side of the hall began to empty and line up at the steps. One by one, the mostly elderly Polish members of the Foundation went up to the pontiff, kissed his papal ring, spoke a few words, and received a Rosary from Benedict. The pontiff said very little, but politely and warmly welcomed each greeting. Then, the ushers came to our side of the hall. I was seated in the third… and final row which was to meet the pope.

I grabbed my CD’s that I had in my bag, and proceeded toward the front. It was surreal. I remembered praying to St. Pio a few years before, to ask Jesus for the grace to be able to lay my ministry at the feet of “Peter.” And here I was, the little singing missionary from Canada, flanked by bishops and cardinals, with the Holy Father mere feet away. 

The gentleman in front of me moved away, and there was Pope Benedict, still smiling, looking me in the eyes. I kissed his ring, and held out my CD’s to him with Song For Karol on top. The Archbishop beside the Holy Father said something in German with the word “concert” in it, to which Benedict said, “Ohh!” Looking at him, I said, “I am an evangelist from Canada, and I am happy to serve you.” And with that, I turned to go back to my seat. And standing there was Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz. This is the man who was Pope John Paul II’s personal secretary, the man who held the late pontiff’s hand as he took his last breath… and so I took those same hands, and holding them, I smiled and bowed. He warmly welcomed me. And as I returned to my seat, I could hear once again, “I want you to meet my best friends.”

 

THE DEAREST FRIENDS

When we reached St. Peter’s Square again, I could no longer contain my emotions. For ultimately, I felt the peace and assurance and love of Jesus. For so long, I have been in the dark, bearing tremendous doubts about my ministry, my calling, my gifts… But now, I deeply felt the love of John Paul II. I could see him smiling, and I felt like his spiritual son (as many people do). I know the path for me is no different… the Cross, staying small, humble, obedient. Isn’t this the path for all of us? And yet, it is with a renewed peace that I woke up today.

And yes, new friends.

 

EPILOGUE

Later on in the afternoon after the papal audience, I had lunch with the members of the Foundation. We learned that Cardinal Stanislaw was next door! I asked if I could meet him, which sent a mischievous grinning nun scurrying away. Within minutes, I found myself in a room with Bozena and Cardinal Stanislaw’s personal photographer. Then the Cardinal entered. 

We spent a few minutes speaking to one another, holding one another’s hand, the Cardinal looking intensely into my eyes. He said he liked my singing voice and could not believe I had seven children — that my face looked too young. I replied, “You don’t look so bad yourself!”

Then I said to him words which were heavy in my heart, “Your Eminence, Canada is asleep. It seems to me that we are in the winter before the “new springtime”….. please pray for us. And I will pray for you.” Looking at me with genuine sincerity, he replied, “And I, for you too.”

And with that, he blessed my handful of Rosaries, my forehead, and turning, Pope John Paul II’s best friend walked out of the room.

 

First published October 24th, 2006

 

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