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The People's Pope

In New York, when Mayor Ed Koch greeted him with, "Your Holiness, I am the mayor," the pope replied, "I shall try to be a good citizen." Then, in Madison Square Garden, thousands of youngsters started shouting in a rhythmic chant, "John Paul II, we love you!" after the pope had been driven around the arena in a converted Ford Bronco while a high school band played the themes from "Rocky" and "Battlestar Galactica."

As George Weigel recounts this and several of these incidents in his magisterial biography, "Witness to Hope," the pope began imitating a drummer and gave a thumbs-up to the crowd. As the chanting rocked the roof, he grabbed a microphone and, shaking with laughter, chanted back: "Woo-hoo-woo; John Paul II, he loves you!"

The Rev. Lee Fangmeyer of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Montgomery County was amazed and touched by what he saw while escorting young people to John Paul's World Youth Day gatherings in Denver (1993), Paris (1997) and Rome (2000).

"In Paris there were opera singers and a great symphony," he recalled. "Then they had Christian rock groups. It was fantastic stuff, amazing. To me it was electrifying. Beautiful music and light shows in both Paris and Rome.

"In Rome, the pope had a fireworks display at the end. He said, 'This is my gift to you.' It was chaotic. Our assigned place was already taken by millions of others, so we'd found a spot far from the center, in a grassy area. When the fireworks went off, they were directly behind us! We were all standing arm-in-arm, it was a beautiful moment."

There'd never been anything like it in the history of the papacy.

Yet the pope's age-old message was simple, and perhaps never better expressed than when he stood under the open sky in Iowa where a farmer had invited him to see America's agricultural breadbasket, and said:

"Even if all the physical hunger of the world were satisfied, even if everyone who is hungry were fed by his or her own labor or by the generosity of others, the deepest hunger of man would still exist. . . . Therefore I say, Come, all of you, to Christ. He is the bread of life."

Time magazine reported a Protestant minister remarking to a Catholic friend, "You got a pope who knows how to pope."

Indeed, rejecting the managerial approach of many pontiffs, John Paul set an evangelical tone, at once high-spirited and down-to-earth, that was reminiscent of Saint Peter himself, the rambunctious apostle who became the first pope 2,000 years ago.

Peter had been a fisherman in Galilee on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire when he first met Jesus of Nazareth. It was Peter who, in a stunningly dramatic moment recounted in Scripture, was the first to look Jesus in the eye and say, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God."

With these words Pope John Paul II opened the first homily of his pontificate Oct. 22, 1978, going on sorrowfully to note that:

"So often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which runs into despair."

The answer:

"Be not afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ.

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