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Columnist looks back on Pope John Paul II

By BY PATRICK HUBBELL
April 24, 2014 at 5:01 p.m.
Updated April 23, 2014 at 11:24 p.m.

Patrick Hubbell

On April 27, the Feast of Divine Mercy, Pope John Paul II will be declared a saint, joining another larger-than-life figure in my own lifetime, Mother Teresa.

I first heard Karol Wojtyla's name between classes at the University of Houston. I was stunned. My first thought was, "Well, this oughta shake things up in the Kremlin." When he appeared on the balcony in Rome, he made an apology if he mispronounced your - our, he corrected himself - language. The crowd just went nuts. Italians instinctively love the guy in white, and the reaction of the crowd dispelled any doubt that they'd be less enthused about a Polish guy in place of an Italian.

He was clearly going to be an unconventional pope. When asked whether it was becoming for a cardinal to ski, he responded, "It is unbecoming for a cardinal to ski badly." In the months to come, we would enjoy watching the bishop of Rome schussing down the Alps.

He was a muscular figure with slathers of theological and pastoral training and the bulliest of bully pulpits. If he was shy as a priest, bishop and cardinal, he had a good way of hiding it. His training as an actor no doubt enabled him to play the biggest part of a lifetime.

He was always there for Poland during the Communist crackdown. Many people today may not know or remember that going to Mass were acts of rebellion against atheist rule behind the Iron Curtain, including Poland.

Everywhere he went, he preached a message of hope - "be not afraid."

He stood side by side with Lech Walesa and Solidarnosc and faced down the bullies who could not get rid of him, even after hiring an assassin to do their dirty work. He had something they didn't have - the courage and tenacity that comes from possessing truth. Ronald Reagan had it exactly right when he called the Soviet Union an evil empire.

Sophisticates laughed at this simplistic characterization. Who's laughing now?

Memories include him sitting in a jail cell with Mehmet Ali-Agca. Old pals, you'd think. Except he was the same guy who fired a gun at him at point-blank range. Then, he stood next to that measly little Polish communist dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski, who was shaking like a bowl of Jell-O in an earthquake. There was also the image of him on his visit to Nicaragua, standing over and scolding yet another Communist - this one in clerical garb. My wife and I had the opportunity to see him lead the Mass in San Antonio in 1987.

Near the end, footage showed John Paul trying to release doves through his window, but they evidently liked it better in his room.

Standing next to him were two cherub-cheeked children who were having a good laugh about it. So was he, in spite of the pain of Parkinson's disease. He leaned more and more on the cross he carried like a crutch, lost in prayer.

One Friday, I had come home for lunch. The TV in the living room was on, and I could hear one louder in the bedroom. I glanced at the set and saw the news was all about John Paul II. My wife was crying in the next room. The news was grim. His kidneys had failed, and he was expected to pass away any moment. There were no confirmed accounts. EWTN, however, had a number after his "dash." Mother Angelica wouldn't lie, would she?

The next day, of course, the world would know that the man from a far country had gone to a far better place.

Losing this pope was like losing a limb. He was so much a part of the background of my life and what I believe in. But we have it on faith that he will always be on hand to assist us.

Patrick Hubbell lives in Victoria and is a Spanish teacher in the Victoria school district.

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