St John XXIII and St John Paul II – recollections by Bishop Smith

The night John XXIII was elected in 1958 still remains a vivid memory for me.  I was a student in Rome and, during the first three years of this new pontificate, Pope John made numerous public visits in the city which I was able to attend.  He struck me as a person of deep prayer and recollection, a man not fazed by any difficulties that would arise.  These traits were particularly evident in his convoking the Second Vatican Council, which has provided the Church with the roadmap for renewal.  At a personal level, little did I know that night in 1958 as the white smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel how much the life of now St John XXIII would shape my own life, not to mention to the entire vision and mission of the Church in the world.

John Paul II was an extraordinary gift to the Church and to the world.  Drawing on personal experience of two violent dictatorships, he was an immense advocate of the dignity of the human person at all stages of life.  I had the honour of first meeting him in late June 1979 as plans got underway for his visit to Ireland.  Each subsequent visit left me with a profound respect for his personal faith and a deep humility in the face of his suffering.  John Paul II has bequeathed to the Church an enormous body of teaching which must constantly be revisited.  In these Easter days, it’s worth reflecting again on the dignity of the human person, redeemed by the risen Christ, which was at the heart of his teaching.  It was to reaffirm this teaching that he himself carried the cross of suffering in a very public witness to the dignity of the human person at every stage of life.