IVP - Strangely Dim - Recalling John Paul

April 8, 2005

Recalling John Paul

by David A. Zimmerman

I met Pope John Paul II once. Well, met is perhaps too strong a term. I saw him once, from about a thousand feet away, and I was about four feet tall in a throng of six-footers at the time, so perhaps saw is too strong a word as well. But considering how little I remember clearly of my childhood, the fact that I remember my encounter with the pope is in itself significant.

I was nine when the relatively new pope came to Des Moines, Iowa, in 1979. The rock band KISS was having a concert that night, and I must confess, I wanted to go to the concert. I wasn't too familiar with KISS, but they wore funky outfits and I could buy their action figures in the toy store. The pope did not have an action figure, and for a nine-year-old sensibility, that made him second-rate.

I remember my aunt and presumably her boyfriend coming to town to see the pope with us. I remember parking at K-Mart and taking a long and hilly walk from there to the Living History Farms. I remember entertaining ourselves with songs and word-games and various other distractions. I remember John Paul stepping off a helicopter and kissing the earth. I remember next to nothing of what he said, but I remember thinking that our deacon must be pretty important, as he was in the progression of church officers who greeted our special guest.

I've not regretted missing KISS since the pope came to town, but I have wished that I had a better memory or a better attention span, or that I had been taller or older when he came. But that's mainly because I am biased toward my intellect: the fact that I was one person among thousands who traveled great distances simply to be the church is less significant than the likelihood that I missed out on something memorable that the pope said.

Where does this elevation of words come from? Why is a pilgrimage, however short, less substantial than a sermon outline, however wordy?

A few years after my encounter, Marvel Comics published a comic-biography of John Paul II. In the comic we read the perspective of a reporter experiencing something very similar to what I experienced on the outskirts of Des Moines: the pope greeting the faithful throng in what was called New York but what could have been Des Moines, Mexico City, Toronto, Warsaw or Havana.

Like me, the reporter's attention drifted from the words of this speaker to the life and deeds of the pope. Here was a man who had suffered through the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland, who had represented his faith throughout the world even before his ascendancy, who had been thrust into the papacy after the sudden death of his predecessor. He was younger than you might expect a pope to be, and for someone so in love with the ground, he spent a lot of time in the air, flying from country to country.

The comic culminates in an assassination attempt and, more important, the forgiveness extended by the pope to his assailant. At that point, all words fell short, and the measure of this man was made clear through the witness of his actions.

I have a friend who has taken an audience with John Paul. He keeps a photo of that encounter in his office, and the look of serenity on his face is more telling than the words he uses to describe the experience or even the words the pope might have spoken to him. I will miss John Paul, not so much for his words or even for his actions: I will miss him because in 1979 I knew that I was not alone, that even when the day ended I remained surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that extends beyond myself or my house or even my generation. And to be in that number--to have experienced the grace of God that translates so naturally into forgiveness of even the gravest of sins--that is enough.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at April 8, 2005 11:07 AM Bookmark and Share


When I saw on my bloglines "I met the Pope once" my heart started racing. "I thought Zimmerman is really connected." Oh well, I wish I could say I saw him from a distance... Peace!

Comment by: Mike King at April 8, 2005 5:40 PM

I suppose my opening line was a bit misleading. Sorry about that. My friend Joel did have a brief audience with him, though, so I'm one degree removed from the papacy. Better be nice to me.

Comment by: David Zimmerman at April 11, 2005 8:35 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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