John Paul Il's Milwaukee connection

John Paul Il's Milwaukee connection

Fr John Walter

Only a few in the know would appreciate that the late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, spoke English with a Milwaukee accent. A well kept secret, it came about this way.

As a young auxiliary Bishop, Karol Wojtyla visited Polish immigrant communities in many Western countries, among them Australia. On one trip to the United States he was welcomed enthusiastically by young Americans of Polish extraction.

One of them was a young school teacher named Patrick. His father's background was Irish; hence his name, Patrick. But Patrick inherited much more from his Polish-American mother. He was intensely proud of his Polish heritage and an active member of the Polish American community in Milwaukee.

Just as Bishop Karol Wojtyla was about to leave he singled Patrick out in the crowd of youngsters farewelling him and cryptically remarked, "One day, Patrick, I will ordain you." To Patrick at the time this was simply a throw-away remark. More to the point, Patrick, like many of his generation in the West who regarded the "institutional" Church with suspicion and even with derision, was a non-practising Catholic.

Some time later in the fervent hope that he would get in touch with his Polish roots, Patrick seized an opportunity to go on loan to Poland as an English teacher. At Krakow airport a priest sought him out and invited him to meet the Archbishop who wanted the young American to teach him English.

To Patrick's surprise, the Archbishop was able to greet him by name. He was none other than Karol Wojtyla. He asked Patrick to provide English lessons also for his chancery staff and his seminarians. His reason: throughout the world English was the common language of business and communication.

This meant that during the week, as he drank in the vibrant Polish culture to satisfy the thirst of that genetically dominant sector of his make-up, Patrick got to know the Archbishop and the Archbishop, in turn, got to know Patrick quite well.

In short order, Patrick returned to the practice of his faith and was reconciled to his Church, undoubtedly fortified by the faith-filled witness of those about him who were so ably led by their churchmen in an inspired struggle against atheistic Communism.

When the time came for Patrick to return to the States the Archbishop invited him over for a farewell drink. As Patrick was about to leave, the Archbishop pointedly remarked once again, "Remember Patrick, one day I will ordain you." To Patrick this was nothing more than a pleasant aside, a word of good-natured encouragement. After all, he had just recommenced his faith journey

Back home in Milwaukee Patrick, now into his thirties, unmarried, looking for employment and wondering where life would take him became aware of strange, new stirrings. He consulted his parish priest and confided to him that for the very first time in his life and quite out of the blue he had begun to think about a vocation to the priesthood.

The immediate upshot was that his parish priest made the important suggestion that he do more than think; he should pray about it. Then he added enigmatically, "Don't be surprised, Patrick, if you discover that they won't want you."

"American Church"

Patrick could not make head or tail of this observation but duly made an appointment to see the local vocations director. There he naively revealed that he had returned to the practice of the faith only recently as a result of his stay in Poland.

At this news the attitude of his priest interviewer changed abruptly. In a condescending tone, he noted that the Catholic Church in Poland was very primitive and he proposed that Patrick very much needed first to get in touch with the sophistications of the "American Church". To this end he suggested he work for some years in the Archdiocesan Chancery Office before proceeding further.

Patrick was totally nonplussed by this response and reported his bafflement back to his parish priest. His comment again was: "I told you, Patrick, they wouldn't want you." For as yet Patrick had no comprehension that long before Vatican II debilitating undercurrents had been flowing through the Church. This baffling rejection had been prompted by some of these.

So he decided to try his luck again in a neighbouring diocese. This time he resolved to keep quiet about Poland and his recent conversion.

At this interview everything seemed to go smoothly and Patrick was asked to return after he had obtained two pastoral references from priests who knew him well. This he readily agreed to do, intending to approach his parish priest for one and quietly resolving to write to the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow for the other.

One day an official looking envelope arrived in the overseas mail. It was embossed with a wax seal. Patrick opened it and inside was his seminary reference. In the meantime, Karol Wojtyla had been elected Pope and the reference was signed by His Holiness Pope John Paul II!

Overjoyed, Patrick made a second appointment to see the vocation director. He handed over the envelopes containing his pastoral references. The vocation director, initially surprised that one was from the Holy See, was then staggered to learn that this young man had a reference from the newly elected Pope.

"You know the Pope?", he gasped. Patrick nodded and naively proceeded to spill the beans about his journey of faith. There was a moment of stunned silence before the vocation director continued. "Patrick, if Poland is your only experience of the Church, before we can consider you for the priesthood you will need to get acquainted with the American Church. Since you are a qualified teacher I could recommend you for a job which will suit you in Catholic education."

He did not even finish the sentence. In justified anger Patrick had stormed out of the office and was making his way back home to report to his parish priest. Patrick simply couldn't believe what had come to pass.

His wise old parish priest once again said, "Patrick, I told you the odds were they wouldn't want you. They certainly wouldn't want anyone in their seminary who had a direct line to the Pope." But in his innocence Patrick still couldn't understand.

When Patrick finally calmed down his parish priest patiently explained how all too often dissident ideologies had managed to dominate over faith within the Church so that what made faces smile on some could equally make them scowl on others. Everything depended on what ideological stance coloured their outlook.

Spirit of dissent

Most of these prejudices derived from a widespread spirit of dissent inside the Church. These stemmed from hostile, ideological departures from received doctrine and other rebellious disciplinary infractions. They were deeply affecting the faith of millions. As Pope Paul VI had earlier remarked, "The smoke of Satan has entered the Church." Even during Vatican II itself, there had been attempts to hijack it.

Among other things these assertive and burgeoning novelties based on unresolved ideological positions were contributing in no small measure to the shortage of priests and religious vocations.

So far as the ideological apparatchiks who wielded great power in many American chancery offices were concerned, a simple faith no longer recommended a young man to test a priestly vocation. In fact a simple faith had become a positive disadvantage. This was also true in many other parts of the Western world and Australia has been no exception.

His parish priest now referred Patrick to a priest friend working in Rome, Msgr John McCarthy, who directed a program to benefit young Americans seeking the priesthood who had been similarly rejected out of hand. Maybe he would be able to find Patrick a place with another bishop even though that might mean going beyond the shores of the United States.

This is how I happened to meet Patrick. In mid-1985 I resided for a month at the Czech College in Rome, the Nepomuceno, where Patrick lived with other like-minded young American students. He was one of those preparing for priesthood. Another was an Australian, Brian Harrison. I had been one of his referees and he too was due to be ordained with Patrick by the Pope. His is an equally fascinating story but it can wait for another time.

During the ordination Mass at the Sign of Peace I witnessed John Paul II give Patrick what could best be described as a huge bear hug. Later that day at the dinner of welcome to the newly ordained Patrick revealed what the Holy Father had said to him that morning in St Peter's: "I told you, Patrick, that one day I would ordain you."

Lately Father Patrick has been serving as a military chaplain with the US armed forces. Under God he owes his priestly vocation to the late Holy Father. While the Lord is undoubtedly still calling many, many also have been the obstacles why so few who came forward were chosen.

Our newly elected Pope, Benedict XVI, has accepted the challenge to lead our dismissive, highly secularised world to heed Christ's call in the face of a multitude of competing ideologies.

In the meantime, many of those exerting influence inside the Church need to relearn a lesson, a perennial message of the Scriptures, that God's ways are not man's ways. The executive decision belongs to the Lord. We work for him on his terms not ours. To put it another way: where God proposes, if we are true to our faith, we dare not oppose. And this demands more than learning - it demands holiness.

Fr John Walter is parish priest of Riverwood in the Sydney Archdiocese.

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