Written by Brett Powell
In the fall of 2004 an idea for the Rise UP commissioning night came to mind. “Let’s write a letter to Pope John Paul II and get everyone at the conference to sign it.” Subsequent to this, other ideas came to mind. When it was finally decided to stick with the letter and signatures, we almost quit on it because it was hard to find a printer that would print the large document. In the end, we found a printer and the commissioning night happened just as we planned. However, the events that followed went way beyond even our greatest expectation. I want to begin with the actual words that we wrote to John Paul II in December of 2004. Re-reading them will help us connect with the historical moments that followed and make them our own.
Dearest Holy Father, Pope John Paul II;
We Catholic youth of Canada and the world, wish to communicate to you our deepest appreciation for your witness to Christ, who is the fullness of truth and love. For the past few days we have attended a conference dedicated to “Building Apostles for the New Millennium” and “Igniting a John Paull II Generation.” We are that generation! This conference is taking place in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, home of the 2002 World Youth Day. Our speakers have challenged us by delivering messages based on your most common themes especially those directed to the youth of the world.
Dear Holy Father, we are committed to your vision of renewal in the Church, especially in Canada. Our nation has seen changes since your visit in the summer of 2002, particularly in the spiritual interest of young people on the university campuses across Canada. We look forward to your visit and God’s blessing as we prepare for and celebrate the 2008 International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City. We long for Canada to experience the New Springtime of Christian life and faith which you have spoken of and prayed for so intensely. We wish to see Jesus! Not only for ourselves but for every man, woman and child on the face of the earth! And to this end, we will give ourselves generously and courageously to the work of the New Evangelization, especially on the university campuses throughout Canada.
Dear Papa, we hear you encouraging us to live our lives in light of eternity and to build the city of God inside the city of man. Holy Father, we are with you, we love you, we pray for you
and we cannot wait to see you in Germany in the summer of 2005. Together, we shall contemplate the face of Jesus, in whom we find ultimate joy and peace and purpose. Gathered with you, His Vicar, we will receive our marching orders and by God’s grace, we shall respond in generosity and charity.
Until we see you in Cologne, we remain in love and fidelity.
Catholic Christian Outreach, Canada.
When I first sat down to write the letter, I wasn’t really writing it to John Paul II, I was writing it about John Paul II. I had no idea that Pope John Paul II would actually see it let alone read it. It was New Year’s eve and we were gathered in a ‘back up’ hotel room packed to the walls with students and staff, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, Canada’s Apostolic Nuncio at the time and very good friend of CCO, announced at the end of Mass that he would personally bring the letter to John Paul II’s secretary, Cardinal Dziwisz. Can you say priority post! Arriving as a package from the Nuncio would guarantee that John Paul II would actually read the letter, “On no, did I spell check that?” came to mind.
We recognized the favor from the Nuncio, but the real significance of the moment was hidden to us at the time. We had no idea that John Paul II would pass away just a few months later. We had no idea how much the letter would encourage the ailing Pontiff in his time of suffering. And we certainly had no idea that he would take the time to sign his own name on the document and mail it back to us via Vatican mail! According to Fr. Tom Rosica, this was one of the last times he signed his name. The actual signed document can be found today in the office of our President. How cool is that – he wrote back!!!!
When I think of the significance of the signature, three things come to mind. The first thing that comes to mind is the fact of the matter. We wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II. He read the letter and was moved by it. He demonstrated his support by signing it and sending it back to us. In and of itself, that is quite amazing.
The second thing that comes to mind is the friendship of Archbishop Luigi Ventura. As Fr. Tom would probably say, Nuncio’s are not known for their gratuitous support of local movements and personalities. They represent the universal Church as an ambassador for the Holy Father. In this case, Archbishop Luigi Ventura represented the local Church as an ambassador to the Holy Father. Nuncio’s don’t take on the role of postal courier every day, you know!
I’ll never forget the first time I met Archbishop Ventura. It was in the Vatican embassy (wait, I’ve been inside the Vatican embassy … three times!) Anyway, Jeff, Andre and I went there for a meeting. I think both Jeff and Andre had spent some time with him prior to this, but this was definitely the first time I visited. What struck me about that meeting is how personable and gracious he was. He was very interested in the movement, the organization, expansion plans, faith studies and all that. But what really captured his imagination were our stories. He wanted to hear our testimonies. It was a very surreal experience. There I am sharing the standard CCO 3 minute testimony with the Papal Nuncio! Who does that? I can still see his face: eyes widening and a slight shaking of his head to demonstrate his appreciation for the hand of God working in my life. Seeing the Nuncio’s eyes smiling as I shared with him the captivating power of the scriptures that kept me up all night long, was something I will never forget.
What does this have to do with the signature? Well, the Nuncio’s interest in our testimonies and John Paul II’s signature – added to all the other signatures, tells me that the Church isn’t just a big global institution, it is a fellowship of believers. It is a network of disciples – people who share a common experience in knowing and loving Jesus Christ. We wrote the letter to John Paul II to communicate our solidarity with him, he wrote back and communicated his solidarity with us – one in heart and mind. Very cool.
The third thing that comes to mind is the following parable from the scriptures (Luke 14:7-11): When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored
in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
When we first wrote the letter to John Paul II, we never really thought about actually mailing it to him, thinking he probably wouldn’t read it. “The Pope, read our letter?! You’re crazy!” But when the Nuncio said he would personally take it to the Pope we thought, “Amazing, I wonder if he’ll read it.” In our own minds, like the parable suggests, we were taking a lower place. Thinking our letter far less distinguished than the other mail he had to read on a daily basis, we never thought he would respond. We were just happy to know that he would see and read about our love for him and be encouraged by our commitment to respond to his directive words. But he did respond! Something that is becoming more and more clear as the years go by is this – God’s favor really is upon us, upon all those whose hearts beat with Christ’s heart beat. God’s favor is nothing more than a promise of His fidelity to those who are faithful to Him. As long as we maintain fidelity to the foundational charism God gave to Andre and Angele; as long as we chose the stools of service resisting the throne of presumption, we shall walk in God’s favor. We have often heard Andre say, “The first 20 years were all about learning how to deal with difficulty and opposition but the next 20 years will be about learning how to deal with favor and openness.” They both require humility. We need humility to take the form of servants, choosing the back seat. And we need humility to accept the call to leadership, walking in the 3rd circle as individuals and a movement.
Today let us humbly acknowledge the favor of God, especially evident in the friends we have in high places. They look on our lowliness as something to be cherished and without shame lift us up to places we do not deserve and positions we do not merit. Above all, let us thank the Lord for John Paul II, our Pope and our friend.
“Dear Holy Father, we are committed to your vision of renewal in the Church, especially in Canada. We long for Canada to experience the New Springtime of Christian life and faith which you have spoken of and prayed for so intensely. To this end, we will give ourselves generously and courageously to the work of the New Evangelization, especially on the university campuses throughout Canada.
Dear Papa, we hear you encouraging us to live our lives in light of eternity and to build the city of God inside the city of man. Holy Father, we are with you, we love you, we pray for you and we cannot wait to see you.”