St. John Paul II may have saved my soul.
I’m not quite there for the final reckoning, but he certainly went a long way toward my reconnection to the Roman Catholic faith.
For five years, I stood within mere feet of him during his Wednesday audiences with the faithful as an ABC reporter and producer.
I didn’t think much of the church back then. My mother, a devout Catholic, had been forsaken by the church when she was depressed. I reported on everything bad about the church, including the banking scandals, the political intrigue and the sexual abuse.
Nevertheless, I was always amazed at how Pope John Paul II touched almost everyone he saw and talked with, including me. He could stand with individuals and reach out to them; he could communicate with millions of people — as I saw during huge gatherings in Africa and India. Perhaps the most amazing moment occurred when he and Mother Teresa met in India.
He had a few blind spots, particularly his slow action against priests involved in sexually molesting young people — much of which occurred before he became pope. But he knew what he had to do with Communism. His visit to Poland in 1979 started the downfall of the Soviet Union. I was able to see the change in Poland during the transition from Soviet rule to the vibrant country it has become.
During his time as head of the Catholic Church, I also had the opportunity to meet some of his key advisers, including then-Archbishop John Foley, who later became a cardinal, and Monsignor Hilary Franco, who was dispatched to tell the Soviet leaders how far the pope would go in defending Poland.
Archbishop Foley, who died in 2011, served as the adviser of the pope for the media. He watched CNN early every morning, as he put it, to figure out what to pray for that day. He knew how to say what needed to be said and what should be kept secret.
When a car almost killed me in 1990, my wife convinced me to speak with a priest about my faith. I wrote a lengthy letter about all of the problems I had with the church. The priest said my complaints were valid, but could I move on? As a result of being around such holy people, I decided I could.
Ironically, Monsignor Franco left the Vatican and became my parish priest in Ossining, N.Y. We had many conversations about Pope John Paul II and Msgr. Franco’s mentor, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, an important Catholic educator during the 1950s and 1960s. Archbishop Sheen had a television program that reached millions of people, and he converted many people to the Catholic faith. Later this year, he will be beatified, the step before sainthood.
Simply put, from St. John Paul II, Cardinal Foley and Msgr. Franco to my wife, I had some significant allies who convinced me that my Catholic faith served as an important bridge to how to live my life.
As I look back on my time around St John Paul II, I realized I was in the presence of holiness. I agreed with those in Vatican Square, who shouted, “Santo Subito,” or “a saint immediately,” when he died in 2005.
I am happy to know that I think I have a saint and a cardinal pulling for me. I hope I make it with their help.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @charper51.