Local Catholics changed by John Paul’s ministry

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, April 24, 2011

John Paul II’s pontificate spanned 26 years, 5 months and 17 days. That is a long time for the Catholic Church and the world to spend with a dynamic leader. For many of us, he was the only pope we knew so his ministry made a lasting impact on us.

I am one such person. Raised a Catholic, I left the church when I went off to college. It wasn’t a decision I consciously made but one that came out of apathy.

During this time I became involved in secular feminism and came to view the church — and John Paul in particular — as oppressors of women. Never did I crack a book to see what the church or he taught on the vocation of women. That would change later.

During my senior year of college I had a St. Paul-blinding-like moment that caused me to question everything I knew. Eventually, through the help of my godmotheraunt, I found my way back to Mass and came across a copy of “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” Pope John Paul II’s interview with Vittorio Messori, an Italian journalist and writer. Here I found a modernday pope citing philosophers and non-theologians to explain the faith. I was hooked.

After that I read everything I could get my hands on by John Paul and followed his steps in the news and online. God ignited my faith through this Polish pope.

Twice I saw the man in person — at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002 and during a personal pilgrimage to Rome in 2004. Seeing him blew me away.

The day he died I was at work at Our Sunday Visitor newsweekly where colleagues and I were putting the finishing touches on our John Paul II tribute issue. I cried that day. It felt like I lost a family member.

Many of us were touched by John Paul II. Staff writers Michelle Martin and Alicja Pozywio joined me in speaking to some local Catholics about the influence the pope had on their lives.

Sophie Kass was a nurse at St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital on Division Street in the 1970s when she first encountered Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope John Paul II. The Polish prelate was visiting Chicago and came to the hospital.

“He made such an impression on me that immediately I felt closeness and special affection for him,” Kass said.

So when John Paul II came to Chicago in 1979, Kass was not going to miss him. Seven and a half months pregnant, she stood in a sea of people at Mass outside Five Holy Martyrs Church, praying for him to bless her so she would have a healthy child.

“Even my baby was stirring in the womb with joy,” she said.

She always wanted to meet the pope, and she got the chance in 2000. She had just returned from a pilgrimage to Spain and Fatima when a priest friend phoned and asked if she would be a caregiver and companion for an elderly woman who wanted to travel to Rome despite her health issues.

She accepted, and her travel companion turned out to be the aunt of then-Bishop Stansilaw Dziwisz, Pope John Paul II’s personal secretary.

“Upon arriving in Rome Bishop Dziwisz (now Cardinal Dziwisz, archbishop of Krakow) expressed the desire to see his aunt,” she said. “I and three other individuals were invited to meet with the pope. He received us warmly and celebrated Mass in his private chapel for us. What a thrill and blessing!”

In 2005, Kass said, her husband was so gravely ill that she was planning his funeral.

“I prayed to every one under the sun including John Paul, even as he himself was gravely ill,” Kass said. “Somehow my husband gradually started to improve and after 6 weeks of ICU care and being on the respirator all that time the doctors felt he improved enough to be removed from the respirator.

“As the physician was removing his respirator a special report came over the TV that our beloved pope passed away. I immediately said God exchanged his life for my husband’s life,” she said.

Father Andre Wypych, pastor of St. Francis Borgia parish in Chicago, was in high school in Poland when he first heard about Karol Wojtyla.

Wypych met then-Cardinal Wojtyla during seminary and was ordained a deacon by him.

Asked about one specific memory about John Paul II, Wypych recalled a Corpus Christi procession on the streets of Krakow.

“There was power attached to his words. I still hear the absolute silence among thousands of people deeply focused on his words,” said Wypych. Working in the cardinal’s archdiocese Wypych could visit the archbishop anytime.

“We didn’t have to make appointments to see him. We simply could go to the archbishop’s residency. Sometimes, there was a long line, but he always saw everyone who was waiting for him,” he said.

Wypych also met the pope in Chicago in 1979 at Five Holy Martyrs Church.

“I have a photo of him taken in Chicago. He walks leaning on the crosier, his white cassock is blowing in the wind. When I look at this picture I see a man who knows his destination,” said Wypych.

For Danny Hidalgo, a parishioner of St. Michael Church in Orland Park, John Paul was an inspiration.

“For me, he set an example of what fortitude truly means in faith life. He remained faithful to his calling to the very end,” Hidalgo said.

The pope also inspired Hidalgo’s work in faith-based media.

“He also influenced me, as a director of photography for Spirit Juice Studios, to spread the Gospel message through modern means (video, podcasts, viral media, social networks, etc.) and answer the call to the new evangelization.”

John Paul being named blessed inspires Hidalgo to remain steadfast in his own faith, he said, “that remaining steadfast to the doctrines of the one and only universal Church Christ founded, in the midst of a world filled with confusion and darkness, that light can be spread by all means at hand and Christ, the Eternal Word, remains triumphant — through those whose faith and works remain steadfast in Christ.”