A cherished moment shared with a soon-to-be saint

By  Emanuel Pires, Catholic Register Special
  • April 27, 2011
Emanuel Pires is introduced to Pope John Paul II on Strawberry Island, north of Toronto, where the Pope stayed during World Youth Day 2002. Pires was one of 14 youth who lunched with the Pope that day. (Photo courtesy of Emanuel Pires)It was a surreal and exhilarating moment in my life that helped to galvanize my faith. I’ve been asked about it many times, shown photos to family and friends, yet I have never truly felt comfortable talking about it. Equal parts disbelief and unworthiness have made it difficult to discuss the day during World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto that I had lunch with the late Pope John Paul II.

When I was first told that I was one of the pilgrims selected to represent youth from around the world to have lunch with the Holy Father I was both excited and scared. I sat down in my chair awestruck with the opportunity to meet the Holy Father. Many dignitaries, celebrities, holy men and women had met the Pope but the chance to break bread with him had my senses temporarily numb. What followed was excitement and joy. I told some friends but generally kept it quiet until a few days before meeting him.

I found it amazing that the Holy Father made a point of sitting down with young people during WYD. To make the time to have a deeply personal and intimate  moment with a few of us spoke volumes.

I met the rest of the pilgrims from around the world (14 in all) briefly before heading on a bus to be taken to Strawberry Island. I was a just a jumble of nerves at that point. Whether I showed it or not I don’t know but I was afraid of what to say, of what to do and how the day would be. When we approached Pope John Paul II, he was sitting down and thanking each of the police officers that had been with him during his stay on the island on Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto. I recall a few of the officers talking about how nice it was for him to take the time to do that with them. One officer even mentioned how even though he wasn’t Catholic it was such an honour to be able to spend that brief moment talking with the Holy Father.

When it was time for the pilgrims to head up and greet him, we spent the time introducing ourselves and talking. While many people viewed Pope John Paul II as a living saint, I was struck by how approachable, open and loving he seemed. My nervousness was almost completely gone with a handshake and a few words briefly exchanged.

Once inside, we all sat around the table, quiet and unsure of what to say. The Pope, seeing how nervous we were, picked up a fork, swatted at a fly that landed on his hand and looked up with a smile at all of us. The ice was broken and he proceeded to go around the table talking to each of us. The one conversation that struck me was the one he had with the young delegate from New York. The Holy Father’s tone changed from a jovial one to concern, talking about 9/11 and telling her that the city and victims were in his prayers. Her eyes welled up, she said thank you and to see that tender moment between the two of them has always been the moment that struck me the most.

While some people later on described it as a similar setting to the Last Supper, I viewed it more like a grandfather with his grandkids, sharing love, faith, laughter and song.

I walked away from the experience with a full heart, open mind and a renewed sense of faith. I still look in a tiny chest that I have at home from time to time, at a blessed rosary and medallion given to all the delegates that day, with fondness and feeling truly blessed to have had the opportunity to spend that time with him.

When the Holy Father died I was able to go to Rome and be a part of the multitude of people who went to the holy city to pay tribute. Seeing the tears and love flow from those gathered made me very emotional as well and reflective on that brief time with the Holy Father in Toronto. I vowed that I would go back to Rome at some point when he was made a saint. Luckily I will have that opportunity as I will be heading over to Rome for the archdiocese of Toronto to help bring the story back for those who are not able to be there.

I think that it is wonderful that Pope John Paul II is being beatified. While I believe that he is a saint, I also view him as my grandfather. An amazing man who inspired a generation of vocations and Catholics, and taught us all how to live our lives with dignity, faith and love.

(Pires is a graphic/web designer for the archdiocese of Toronto communications department.)

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