Pope Story #1

More than thirty years ago I had just moved to Chicago, into a home with bare white walls, sorely in need of some artwork. That may explain why I had wandered into a gallery, attracted by several paintings in the window.

I have no explanation for what happened next. When asked if I was looking for something in particular I said these words: "Something for my home... and an orphanage." What intrigues me to this day is that the thought of buying something for an orphanage came from out of the blue, and was totally uncharacteristic.

At the time, I was an enthusiastic and successful member of the "Me Generation", completely into materialism. I had a generous income from my work, but it is an eternal truism that an abundance of cash tends to evaporate in surprising ways. Somehow, I felt inspired and compelled to say this, as if my person were taken over by some other force. It was a purely spontaneous blurting out of what seemed to me as nonsense. In fact, I had never been in an orphanage; didn't even know where one was.

Parade To The Circus by Xavier Cugat
(click to enlarge)

Of the several paintings I bought that day, the one that made me smile the most was titled "Parade To The Circus". The artist, Xavier Cugat was more famous as a Cuban band leader who appeared in many films over 30 years and who, at 66 years old, was briefly married to Charo, the salsa dancer, when she was 24. But I digress... This original serigraph was appropriately colorful and fun, perfect for a child's room, perfect for an orphanage. My plan was to rotate the piece between my children's rooms until they had outgrown it, then donate it to an orphanage.

And so, many years later I showed up with the painting, unannounced, at the front door of San Diego's Nazareth School orphanage, which I found in the Yellow Pages. Mother Superior (Sister St. Fintan) was quite surprised. She did not get many people dropping in with a painting to donate. She smiled sweetly when she saw it, thought deeply for a few moments, and announced that the perfect place for it was right outside her office, visible to unruly boys sent to her office for a lecture, detention, extra duties or some other unpleasantness. She rested her hand on my arm and said "I think they will like this. Thank you." I saw a tear forming in that twinkle in her eye.

She took me to her office, where she was frustrated to find that the place she intended to hang The Circus was occupied by a framed photograph of the then-current, Pope Paul VI, whose likeness had hung there for the preceding 15 years of his pontificate, so long a part of the furnishings of her office that it had become unmemorable. She could not possibly remove the likeness of The Pope. It would be Heresy or Blasphemy, or some such mortal sin. The face of Mother Superior was filled with disappointment, but she tried to cover it up by suggesting that her handyman assistant would find some other good place to hang it. She invited me to stop back anytime to see it again.

It was an historic time, a Year of Three Popes. A few months after my visit to the orphanage, the life and 15 year reign of Pope Paul VI ended. Twenty days later, Pope John Paul I was elected, but died after serving only 33 days. Then the great one, Pope John Paul II was chosen.

A few years after donating the painting, I was struck with nostalgia to see it once more. I was also curious to learn how they were enjoying it. Again I popped in unexpectedly, and Mother Superior enthusiastically showed me how she had moved the pope's picture (now Pope John Paul II) to the far wall, in a dark corner, giving center stage to The Circus. In the Summer of Three Popes, she was given two opportunities for guilt-free redecorating.

Then she told me how she was touched when one second grade lad who had been sent to her office several times, spending a lot of time looking at The Circus, announced to her "That is a good picture, Sister." She had that same teary twinkle as she told this story. I was developing the same symptoms. I have not returned to the orphanage in these last 22 years, but I am sure The Circus is still in good hands.

Now let's fast forward several more years, when I met Pope John Paul II face to face, at the Vatican, and we looked deeply into each other's eyes, with pandemonium erupting all around us in St. Peter's Square, and we had a moment of truth, I saw the same twinkle in his eyes. I got the feeling he would have a good laugh about Mother Superior's crisis of conscience at displacing the likeness of a pope with The Circus. I felt he might have joked "It's OK as long as it wasn't MY photograph!" I wanted to tell him this story, but our time was quite limited. He's a busy man.

When I met him, he was strong and healthy but now Pope John Paul II has gone. He has been called one of the Greatest Human Beings since the Beginning of Time, a man who has touched more people, both in person, physically, and via media, and who has created more global good than anyone who ever lived.

It is inspiring to see such an extraordinary man spring forth from humble beginnings. It gives hope that there is a seed of greatness in all of us. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then I have looked into the soul of this saint, and I can tell you that where there is Divinity there is that twinkle of kindness, love, compassion and joy.

The first draft of this story was published on my website
at the stroke of 10pm, April 8, 2005,
the day of the New Moon, and the burial of Pope John Paul II.

© copyright 2005, all rights reserved

Future Pope Stories
(a work in progress, forthcoming as time and circumstance allow)

How I got to see the pope.
What I said to the pope when I met him.
Finding the above photo of the pope and me at L'Osservatore Romano.

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