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Priests share memories of Pope John Paul II

Father Ryan Lewis shares a personal moment with Pope John Paul II in this 2003 photo.
Photo by L'Osservatore Romano

By Lisa Schulte
The Catholic Voice

As the world mourns the loss of Pope John Paul II, three priests living in the Archdiocese of Omaha fondly recall their personal memories of the Holy Father.

Father Dan Kampschneider, pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha; Father Ryan Lewis, in residence at Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Omaha, and Father James Brown, OAR, in residence at St. James Parish in Omaha, all share the joy of having met Pope John Paul during his 26-year pontificate.

Witnessing history

Father Kampschneider stood only 100 yards away from the newly elected Pope John Paul II on that October evening in 1978. As a seminarian studying at the North American College in Rome, he was one of hundreds of thousands of people who gathered in St. Peter's Square for the announcement of the new pope.

Studying in Rome from 1975-1979, those encounters didn't cease. In fact, Father Kampschneider, who later returned to Rome to teach on the seminary's faculty from 1991-1997, said he met the pope more than a dozen times, either at a papal audience or at a Mass in the pope's private chapel.

Each time it was an "extraordinary experience," Father Kampschneider said.

His memories of the pontiff highlight the pope's "deep, contemplative spirit" and his love for the Eucharist.

Father Kampschneiderfirst met Pope John Paul II at a children's hospital near the Vatican about a month after his election. During that encounter, he witnessed the pope's devotion to the Eucharist.

"I'll never forget it, when he came into the hospital chapel, he went immediately to the altar, knelt down and offered a few minutes of silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament," Father Kampschneider told The Catholic Voice. "It said to us how this Holy Father was so dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament, to our Lord in the Eucharist, but also that prayer was integral to him."

During the visit, the pope leaned against Father Kampschneider as he spoke of the children at the hospital.

"He just encouraged us never to forget the children," he said. "I knew this was going to be a very special pope."

Years later, on the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1997, Father Kampschneider again saw how deeply the pope loved the Eucharist. As the Eucharist was processed through the streets of Rome, a tradition in the city, Pope John Paul II knelt before the exposed Eucharist, keeping his gaze on the Blessed Sacrament. It was the only time Father Kampschneider said he saw the pope ignore the crowds gathered along the street.

"There was someone else more important he was focusing upon – the Lord in the Holy Eucharist," he said.

It was also the only time the crowds didn't cheer for the pope as he passed by, out of respect for the Eucharist, Father Kampschneider said.

When he heard of the news of Pope John Paul's death, Father Kampschneider said he had tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat.

"No one has affected me in my priesthood as much as our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II," he said. "I have read probably seven or eight biographies of him. I have read almost every major document he has written and I've read almost all of his encyclicals and apostolic letters. I had such admiration for him. He touched my life."

A friend of the youth

For most of his 59 years as an Augustinian priest, Father James Brown has been an advocate for the youth.

This love for young people was something the priest gladly shared with Pope John Paul II, as well as the closeness in age – Father Brown is just a year younger than the pope was at his death.

As a member of the national board of directors for World Youth Day 1993 in Denver, Father Brown met with Pope John Paul at a committee meeting. And less than 10 years ago, he again met with the pope while visiting Rome. Father Brown, former national director of the Teens Encounter Christ movement, presented the new TEC manual to the pope, who expressed his happiness with the work Father Brown had done with young people.

Father Brown's first encounter with the pope was at the canonization of St. Ezekial Moreno, a member of Father Brown's religious order. Father Brown was one of 12 priests who concelebrated Mass with Pope John Paul II in Santo Domingo.

"The thing that really startled me each time I met him was the blueness of his eyes. It was just an extraordinary blue," he said.

Pope John Paul had a keen pastoral sense. He didn't talk above people or to people, but instead talked with people, Father Brown said.

"The pope's favorite phrase was 'communio,' or that warm, agape love that Jesus left with us. It's not love with a hook. It's a self-gift. Where there's not love I will put love."

Remembering his holiness

"Pope John Paul II had this aura about him and I think it flowed from his holiness," Father Ryan Lewis said.

When a person met him, it wasn't like meeting a rock star or a politician or somebody famous in the sense of being notorious, but rather, meeting someone who was holy, he said.

Father Lewis had several meetings with Pope John Paul II during his five years of studying for the priesthood in Rome. Each time he met the pope, it was "very powerful," he said.

One Sunday, Father Lewis was invited to attend a private Mass with the pope in the Vatican gardens. Following the Mass, he spoke to the pontiff, asking him to bless his vocation.

Again, he met Pope John Paul whenever Archbishop Elden Francis Curtiss would visit Rome. The pope would always give him something, like a rosary or a prayer card.

The thing Father Lewis said he will remember most about Pope John Paul is the centrality of his love for Christ and how that permeated everything he did.

"He'll be talked about in so many ways … a philosopher, a theologian, a savvy public relations person … but really, it all comes down to everything that he did flowed from an immense love for Christ," he said.

"Every opportunity was an opportunity to serve Christ. He just gave and gave and spent his life in service. I think his life clearly has a lot of the markings of a saintly life."

The Catholic Voice

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