Beloved popes inspired generations

With the canonizations of Pope Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, legions of Catholic priests will delight in the moment. Certainly, many lay and religious men and women also hold these two spiritual leaders in high esteem. But so many priests who prepared for ministry and were ordained during their remarkable pontificates look in a special way to one or the other as a lasting inspiration and model, giving us the “John XXIII generation” and “John Paul II generation” of priests.

‘Simplicity and humility’

Admiration of Pope St. John XXIII and some close contact with him during his seminary days “deeply affected my life and still does to this day,” said Father Douglas Brougher in a recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor.

Father Brougher, a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, was ordained Dec. 19, 1962. Before that, beginning in 1959, he attended seminary at the North American College, the seminary run in Rome by the U.S. bishops.

He started there not long after John was elected pope and was ordained just months before John’s death. He had a front-row seat for the refreshing new style of ministry John brought to the papacy and also for the preparations and opening days of the Second Vatican Council that John summoned.

Father Brougher
Father Richards
Father Sweeney

“Being that close to him during those years and seeing his example of ministry and his vision of the Church has been very important to me,” Father Brougher said.

Father Brougher will never forget standing in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 11, 1962, for the opening ceremony of Vatican II. “I stood there and watched the pope and those 2,500 bishops from all over the world process into the basilica. It taught me the universality of the Church, and Pope John made it happen. It was one of the great experiences of my life.”

Father Brougher said he has carried the open and expansive view of the Church he learned from Pope John with him throughout his priesthood. “I’ve tried to imitate his sanctity, his beautiful simplicity and his humility. I have not always measured up. But I have always tried.”

‘Love was the thing’

It’s hard to beat Msgr. George Ryan’s story of contact with Pope John XXIII. On Holy Thursday of 1961, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at Rome’s St. John Lateran Basilica, Pope John washed Ryan’s feet. The moment, which he shared with 11 other seminarians of the Collegio Capranica where he studied, made a great impression on him.

“After the pope washed our feet, he kissed them, and then he gave us each a warm smile of deep recognition as a brother in Christ. It was a beautiful experience. He was such a humble and beautiful person,” Msgr. Ryan told OSV.

Msgr. Ryan recalls his surprise when he saw the simplicity and cheerfulness of the newly elected Pope John. “His charity exuded from him. You knew he was filled with the love of Jesus Christ. That taught me about the charity I was called to have for people as a priest. Love was the thing about him that captivated me,” he said.

Msgr. Ryan still remembers saying on his ordination day, Dec. 17, 1962, that he hoped to be the sort of priest John XXIII was — loving people and being involved in their lives. It is a hope he has continued to work toward throughout his long priesthood in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

‘To be present to them’

A similar fondness for another pope, St. John Paul II, beats in the heart of Father Ronald Richards, who was ordained on May 29, 2004, for the Archdiocese of Detroit. Father Richards attended North American College from 2000-04 and was able to meet John Paul on several occasions during those years. On one of them, John Paul blessed the chalice Richards still uses daily for Mass. “I think of him every time I celebrate Mass,” Father Richards told OSV.

“Meeting him was amazing. By that time, his health was really declining, and yet, when he shook your hand, he looked into your eyes and connected with you. He was truly giving you that moment.

“It taught me how important it is to give people your time, to really be present to them, no matter what else happens to be going on in your day. I’ve tried to keep that lesson with me as a priest,” he said.

He recalls vividly how authentic and “real” John Paul II was in his interactions with people. “He had an ability to connect with people. I admired that, and the memory reminds me to try to be as real with people as possible, too. It’s not about putting on airs. What we do and say as priests affects people’s lives, and I will always remember that,” Father Richards said.

‘Gift of oneself’

The centrality and intensity of John Paul II’s prayer life is one of the things that most impressed Father Luke Sweeney, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York who studied at the North American College from 1997 to 2002. It’s a lesson he has carried with him since his ordination on May 19, 2001.

“It taught me of the importance of that time of daily adoration, going every day before the Lord. I know my heart needs it, and so it’s something that I strive to make a part of each day, even when the days are busy,” Father Sweeney told OSV.

Father Sweeney spent a great deal of time studying the writings of John Paul II. One of the most important things he learned is that “the essence of love is to make oneself a gift to others. We are called to receive that gift from God and to live it in our lives. That really made an impact on me, and I try to teach it to others, whether I’m forming seminarians or preparing couples for marriage or whatever it may be.”As vice rector of Cathedral Seminary House of Formation in Douglaston, N.Y., Father Sweeney now passes on what he learned to more men studying for the priesthood.

Fathers Brougher, Ryan, Richards and Sweeney each look forward with delight to the dual canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. “It’s a glorious moment for the Church,” Father Richards said.

Thousands of his brother priests, who continue to look to the two as models and guides, surely agree.

Barry Hudock is the author of “Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching” (Liguori, $16.99).

From Pope to Saint
Inspiration in 140 characters
Our Sunday Visitor asked our followers on Twitter how Pope Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II inspired their lives. Here are some responses: