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This article was originally published in the Feb. 2, 2018, print edition of The Catholic Missourian. May 18, 2020, would have been Pope St. John Paul II’s 100th birthday.
St. Patrick, apostle to his ancestors. Saints Peter and Paul, the greatest Pope and the greatest missionary. St. Joseph, protector of the Christ Child and patron saint of the Universal Church. Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun, the Wichita priest who ministered heroically in foxholes and a P.O.W. camp in Korea.
So many saints!
“They’re all important. How could I possibly pick a favorite?” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight asked with a tinge of jubilant frustration.
Yet, of all the saints, only one left him with a burning in his chest — or more specifically, the sting of the ring.
The future bishop was studying at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm in Rome in 1998 when Bishop Eugene J. Gerber of Wichita, now deceased, arrived for his ad limina visit with Pope St. John Paul II.
“It’s customary that any priest of a bishop’s diocese who’s in Rome would accompany him to meet the Pope,” said Bishop McKnight. “So I got to meet Pope John Paul II!”
The night before the visit, the young priest tossed and turned in bed, trying to memorize in Italian what he wanted to say to the Holy Father — something along the lines of, “The youth of the world love you. Thank you for being so good to us and giving us so much of your attention.”
He was stunned upon meeting the Pope the next day.
“We get into his office, and I’m looking straight ahead, and all of a sudden, he’s right there, off to the side,” he recalled.
Bishop Gerber introduced the young priest to the Holy Father.
“And I got completely tongue-tied and forgot everything I was going to say,” Bishop McKnight recalled.
The Holy Father asked him in Italian, “Where do you study?”
Bishop McKnight replied, “Sant’Anselmo.”
The Pope responded, “Oh! Liturgia!”
Kind of dazed, Bishop McKnight said, “No ... Sacramenti.”
The Pope looked back and gave him a robust tap on the chest.
“I could feel his papal ring,” Bishop McKnight recalled.
The conversation ended as quickly as it had begun, with the young priest thinking, “You get to meet the Pope, and the only thing you have to say is to correct him?”
Still embarrassed a few years later, he recounted the story to a few fellow priests in Wichita.
One of them, who shared the sainted Pope’s Polish ethnicity, piped up: “That was a sign of affection! The Pope was affirming you for studying the sacraments!”
Bishop McKnight remembered the meeting vividly a dozen years later as throngs of people attending Pope St. John Paul II’s Funeral Mass in St. Peter’s Square were spontaneously calling out, “Subito! Subito! Santo Subito!” — Italian for “Sainthood now!”
“I hope to heaven that what my Polish priest friend said is the truth, because I’m taking it as if it is,” said Bishop McKnight. “I would not want to have offended a saint!”