The first time I took notice of Pope John Paul II was at his funeral. I was an atheist, as I had been for the duration of his pontificate, and I sat with my husband, a non-practicing Baptist, to watch the coverage. We hadn’t planned to tune in for the event, but both of us were intrigued by the enormous world response. We turned on the television to see highlights of the dignitaries arriving, and there was President George W. Bush. Then Bill Clinton. Then George H.W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Jacques Chirac, Nelson Mandela, Gerhard Schroeder, Tony Blair, and Prince Charles (who had postponed his own wedding to attend). It was the largest gathering of statesman in the history of the world. The news cameras panned over the attendees, showing the rich array of colors and designs in their attire. It was like one of those sci-fi movies where there’s an intergalactic council, the huge variety in the dignitaries’ appearances giving a visceral impression that the entire universe has paused to observe this event.
“There’s something going on with the Catholic Church,” my husband mused. “I just can’t figure out what it is.”
Just a few months after the funeral, a series of events led me to question atheism for the first time in my life, and I began to research religion and spirituality. My husband joined me in my search, and we were shocked to find that our investigation pointed us in the direction of the Roman Catholic Church (the only thing we’d previously had in common in terms of religion was that we were both anti-Catholic). When we talked to Catholics about their beliefs, we noticed that the subject of John Paul II never failed to elicit an emotional response. Our friend who was a business executive got the same look in his eyes as our friend who cleaned houses for a living who’d grown up in poverty in Mexico; they’d both smile with a wistful sigh, just like our Catholic friends from the Philippines and Colombia did at the mention of the late pope’s name. It was touching to see a world family so close to its spiritual father. It reminded me that the word “catholic” means “universal.”
Despite the fact that I found this religion to be imminently reasonable, I still couldn’t convert until I saw some kind of evidence that its doctrines were divinely-guided, as it claimed they were. After months of reading, I discovered the writings of John Paul II, specifically his Theology of the Body. What I found was a counter-cultural, brilliant yet counter-intuitive wisdom like I’d never encountered before. Reading his words made me feel like he had access to some secret owner’s manual to the human soul. It was the pebble that tipped the scales. Taken in total, I didn’t believe that humans could come up with this unfathomable body of wisdom on their own; I saw divine intervention. My husband and I both became Catholic at Easter Vigil in 2007.
I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing John Paul II while he was alive, yet I am one of thousands -- perhaps millions -- who has been touched by his legacy. Even in death he’s continued his role as a good shepherd, leading people like me to our spiritual home.
Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and a convert to Catholicism.