When Ed Kowalchick saw Pope John Paul II in person, he knew he was in the presence of greatness. Kowalchick lived near Philadelphia when John Paul II came to the city, shortly after the start of his Pontificate in 1978.
“I carried my infant son to be blessed by him,” said Kowalchick. “I have to say, when he entered the cathedral, I cried.”
Such was the presence of John Paul II, who died last Saturday in the Vatican. His passing was mourned by the Catholic community in Potomac, even as his life and papacy — the second-longest ever — was celebrated.
Kowalchick is now the headmaster at Georgetown Preparatory School, a Jesuit high school in North Bethesda that paid tribute to the pope’s life through the week. On Monday, students and staff who had just returned from spring break held a period of service remembering the pope midway through the school day.
A paschal candle was lit at the school. Kowalchick said the day for students to develop not only in spirit, said Kowalchick, but also gain historical perspective on the Catholic faith and learn College of Cardinals, the Interregnum — the period after the death of a pope — and the conclave — the assembly of Cardinals that will elect the next pope.
“He’s a man who died courageously,” said Kowalchick. “He accepted the end of life as a new beginning.”
Like churches throughout the Archdiocese of Washington, Georgetown Prep will celebrate a Mass of liturgy on Friday.
At Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, students returned from spring break Monday to the news of the pope's death. The event was a subject of conversation in class, particularly religion class, said Jacqui Appel, daughter of the headmaster and an administrator at the school.
"Even my little brother, who is over at Georgetown Prep, called me in alarm about it," Appel said.
A PICTURE OF the pope was displayed in the nave of Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac during the weekend’s five Mass celebrations. The church will perform a Novena, a traditional nine-day scripture reading and response, at each of the Masses during that period.
On Friday — the day of the pope’s burial — the children of Our Lady of Mercy School will participate in the 8:30 a.m. Mass, laying flowers next to a picture of the pope and carrying in a book of remembrances.
After the nine-day period of praying for the pope, the church will focus its prayers on the conclave, said the Rev. William English, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy.
"We’ll begin to focus in on the conclave and praying for the Holy Spirit coming in upon the cardinals in their deliberations and their reflections," English said. "Ultimately their role becomes one of being open to the movement of God in their lives, so that they elect someone that the Lord wants them to elect, not someone who they think is more popular. Now, God works through our giftedness, so that they obviously are going to be looking for someone that’s gifted in order to do that."
The pope’s death is sad because people feel a sense of personal loss, English said, but is joyous for the pope himself, who in Catholic belief is being resurrected and reunited with God.
“If people are tearful it’s for themselves, not for the pope, because of our own belief in the resurrection and his going to the Father in heaven,” said English.
FOR ENGLISH, the many actions and events in the pope’s life being discussed in the press are important, but are only things that followed at a basic level from the pope’s personal relationship with God.
“I am most struck by his prayerfulness, because it was what drove his life," English said. He pointed to the pope "realizing that he was working for God, he wasn’t working for himself. That he ultimately wasn’t the boss. He was only the vicar. And vicar means the chief assistant. He was chief assistant to Christ."
"My own sense is that he recognized that and was aware with that in his own relationship with the Lord through prayer — and that drove his life," English said. “That’s easy to discount but to me it was the most important thing he did.”
English attended a papal Mass two years ago, when the pope’s health was beginning to wane, but he was still generally healthy. English had great admiration for the grace and devotion that marked the pope's final weeks.
"Some of the comments that were made, that I thought were nice, is that as he was dying and sick, he was showing people how to do it. I thought that was a nice way of putting it," English said.
Q&A with Rev. William English, Our Lady of Mercy
Q: Do you feel that there is a sense of loss among the parish?
A: “Certainly an awe and an appreciation of the man. It’s only I think in death that we step back and take a look at what we’ve had. I think that’s true at an individual level as well as at a larger level. They certainly are standing in appreciation about the nice things that are being said about their leader. It’s always nice to hear nice things about your leader. So there’s a lot of awe about that and appreciation about what he’s brought to the church and what he’s been for the larger community as well.”
Q: What are your personal recollections of Pope John Paul II?
A: “I am most struck by his prayerfulness, because it was what drove his life. It was what opened him up to be the person that he is and that God created. It was his desire to develop a relationship with God and spending time with God and realizing that he was working for God, he wasn’t working for himself. That he ultimately wasn’t the boss. He was only the vicar. And vicar means the chief assistant. He was chief assistant to Christ. And my own sense is that he recognized that and was aware with that in his own relationship with the Lord through prayer — and that drove his life.
“He tried to use the gifts that God had given him and the skills that he developed to respond as he saw it appropriate. He obviously used his language skills powerfully; to speak to people’s hearts in their own languages was remarkable.
“It’s all driven through prayer and his prayer experiences and his time spent with the Lord. That’s easy to discount but to me it was the most important thing he did.”
Q: Have you been to Rome to see the pope?
A: “I’ve been there twice. About a year and a half ago, two years ago I went on a pilgrimage, when I was in a different parish. I went with Cardinal McCarrick, and a group that he brought. At that point he was sick. He said Mass, but he wasn’t really strong. He was still pretty healthy at that point. And I’d gone years before that when Paul VI was pope, and I guess my experience at that time, the first time as much of as the second was an awareness of the awesomeness of the responsibility of the person’s role. To have all these thousands of people standing underneath your sitting room window, waiting for you to open the window, is very striking to me. And they’re waiting for you to say something significant.”
Q: Is there a joy that accompanies the sadness of this?
A: “Well there’s a joy that in terms of the belief in the resurrection. If people are tearful it's for themselves, not for the pope, because of our own belief in the resurrection and his going to the father in heaven. So for him, it’s purely joy.
"At the same point its kind of an excitement, an expectation, that the cardinals will choose well.”
Q: What do you see as the pope’s legacy? Or do you see this event in terms of legacy?
A: “To me his legacy is he modeled what it meant to be a follower of the Lord Jesus. And he did it well. And to me you can’t beat that. There’s other things that he accomplished because of who he was and because of that role, but I think it goes back to him just doing what the Lord wanted him to do.
“Some of the comments that were made, that I thought were nice, is that as he was dying and sick, he was showing people how to do it. I thought that was a nice way of putting it. Which is another way of saying that in his illness he modeled what it meant to be a follower of the Lord.
“The beauty too … is that it’s providing people the opportunity to talk about the pope, and to talk about their own faith. … It’s hard for them to not share their faith. You watch the same person week after week, day after day, and they don’t talk about their faith. This kind of brings their faith out of them. To me that’s the wonderful thing.”