April 29, 2011
Have you ever met a saint?
Most of us would probably respond very quickly…NO! The obvious reason for this response is that most saints are not beautified or canonized until decades or perhaps even a century after their deaths.
Yet most of us could also respond “Yes” to the question. We all hope to be with the Lord in heaven some day; however, it is only after some sober reflection that we realize that we all have known some very dedicated, pious and holy men and women in our lifetime.
Only after a couple of decades have passed did l realize that my grandparents would fit that category. They were ordinary people with a deep faith; matched only by their prayerfulness, generosity and willingness to help others. I have no doubt that they are in heaven.
Have I ever met a saint?
Well, maybe, but technically, “NO”! John Paul will be beautified Sunday, May 1. I met him many times after he became Pope, but he is still not canonized.
What is like to meet a “saint in the making?” I never thought of it the many times that I had the pleasure to speak with him privately and personally.
I met John Paul II for the first time after an International Serra Club Convention in Italy. All the members attending were invited to a special audience. The leadership actually was able to meet him. As President of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, I was sure I would be included in that number. That was not to happen. I went back to our seminary in Rome a little bent out of shape.
At the seminary I was given a note to call the Vatican immediately. It was an invitation from the Papal Office inviting me to concelebrate the private Mass with the Pope the next morning. Suddenly I was no longer feeling sorry for myself.
After the Mass the pope greeted the 10 priests present and gave us each a rosary. As he passed by and handed me a rosary I said “Thank You, Holy Father” in Czech. He stopped abruptly, looked at me, and returned to talk with me. It was obviously that he thought I was from Prague…because of my accent. He was fascinated that someone born in the USA could still speak like a native of Bohemia! He asked “How was that possible?” I replied, “Your Holiness, ‘All things are possible with God.” He smiled in agreement, clasped my hands in his and said: “have a beautiful and effective priesthood.” Then he hugged me.
My first Ad Limina Apostolorum Visit (Quinquennial Report) to Rome brought a beautiful encounter with this newly beatified. Because of my last name he thought I was of Polish ancestry. I replied, “No, your Holiness, I am of Czech background.” He simply said, in a saddened tone, “Oh!” We both felt a little awkward after that. But after the meeting he said “It is Kodak moment time.” So Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio jumped up for the photo opts with the Pope. John Paul simply said to him, “No, I will start with Bishop Zurek, I have plenty pictures with you, Archbishop.” Then he smiled and invited me to stand beside him for this great privilege.
The following Friday ten of us bishops had pranzone (Lunch) with the pope in his apartment. It was delightful. It was here that I discovered a truly Slavic trait of this pope…his whimsical spirit. After lunch he gave us a Pectoral Cross, said the prayer of thanksgiving and then all the bishops began to leave. I also tried; however, I was impeded from doing so by his personal secretary, then Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, who told me to give my farewell regards to the Holy Father. I knew this was a ‘set-up’, but what could I do!
I was positioned directly in front of the Pope and no one said anything. I had no idea what was going on! So, I thanked the Pope for his confidence in naming me bishop. He just “grunted” a sound, but remained a little stoic. I then thanked him for all the time he spent with me and other bishops during our visit. He “grunted” again and slightly nodded his head. I began to be a little uncomfortable. I thanked him for the meal. He said nothing, only nodded his head in acceptance of my gratitude. I began to “sweat bullets.”
Not knowing what else to say, I said, “thank you for this lovely Pectoral Cross.” Finally, he broke out of his intimidating silent role and replied: “I just want you to know that I know you are Patrick Zurek, Auxiliary Bishop of San Antonio and that you are of Czech ancestry and not Polish!” I was stunned! It was all a set-up. He continued: “Have a wonderful episcopacy. Be holy! Be effective! And enjoy your ministry! You will be in my prayers!” Then he pulled my head to his shoulder, hugged me, kissed my head and said farewell. It was definitely a “Gotcha” moment! And he enjoyed every moment of it! So did I.
I share this with you so that you can and will realize that Holy Men and Women are ordinary people. They also enjoy life…probably no one more than John Paul II. We have been privileged to know a truly holy man. He is also a sign that there is truly hope for all of humanity, especially you and me.