It is an amazing feeling when, from time to time, you achieve a clarity of vision that lets you see that life is a series of mysterious connections and not just isolated events. This feeling was mine once again as I reflected upon the life and death of Pope John Paul II and saw my priesthood in the context of his 26-year pontificate.
I'm a Conventual Franciscan friar who had the opportunity to do my theological studies in Rome. Arriving in 1975, I began my studies when Paul VI was pope. I was present when he died, and a month later when John Paul I passed away as well.
I was in St. Peter's Square on the evening of Oct. 16 when we heard the proclamation "Habemus Papam," and John Paul II first addressed the city and world as the newly elected leader of the Catholic Church.
The following year, I was ordained a priest, and when the pope conducted a pastoral visit at our basilica in Rome, I had the privilege of being one of 10 friar priests chosen to concelebrate Mass with him.
In the dining room of the residence after the Mass, the pope chatted with the Americans in English about his recent visit to the United States, and along with the Polish friars present we sang Christmas carols in his native tongue -- carols that I had learned as a child.
I met briefly with the pope every year as he brought a basket of roses to the statue of Mary on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, as thousands of Romans brought their own floral tributes as well. It was the role of the friars to collect the flowers, and I believe the pope appreciated that we were spending 12 hours there so the Church could honor the Blessed Virgin for whom he had such a powerful devotion.
I was also at the papal audience in St. Peter's Square on the day the pope was shot and, like everyone else in the city and the world, was numbed with disbelief and anxiously awaited news of his condition.
In 1982 I came to Hilbert College. My days of having opportunities to see the pope personally had come to an end. However, I was able to return to Italy this year, arriving in Rome on Palm Sunday.
I was not at St. Peter's for Mass that day, but watched it on television. The once vibrant and strong man I had met 26 years before was now physically debilitated, almost unable to move his arms without assistance.
I left Rome the day before the pope died, having heard the news that the Vatican had announced the pope was in his last days or even hours. Upon hearing of the pope's death, I recalled all of these memories.
I believe in divine providence and am grateful for the opportunity to have been present for all of these events, especially the first and last days of John Paul II's pontificate. It made me think of all of the deaths and rebirths I have experienced during the past 26 years.
It made me grateful for my priesthood, my ministry and the many opportunities I have been given to celebrate life with God's people, even in times of sorrow and suffering.
I aspire to the pope's joy of life. I pray for his faith-filled acceptance of his mortality. And the picture of me with John Paul II, which hangs on my office wall, will remind me always not just of him, but of all that I learned from his life.
THE REV. DR. BERNARD OLSZEWSKI is vice president for academic affairs at Hilbert College.