National Catholic Register

Inperson

My Life at the Vatican With Three Popes

BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN

June 25-July 1, 2006 Issue | Posted 6/26/06 at 11:00 AM

 

Bishop John Magee spent eight years as private secretary to three Popes — Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II.

He served for five years as master of pontifical liturgical ceremonies for John Paul II, traveling the world with the Pope. John Paul appointed him to bishop of Cloyne, Ireland, in County Cork, in 1987.

Ordained a priest in his native Ireland for the Missionary Order of St. Patrick in 1962, Bishop Magee spent six years in Nigeria before being forced to leave during the Biafran War. He then became procurator general of his order in Rome.

Bishop Magee spoke with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen from Franciscan University at Steubenville, where he received an honorary doctorate of Christian letters and gave the commencement address May 13.

What were some of your duties for the Holy Father?

You were always present and available to the pope for whatever the pope needed. You looked after the private affairs of the Holy Father and that everything went smoothly for him to the point of view he didn’t have to worry about the day.

You participated in his private Mass and prayer life. You organized his work schedule and the time for meeting people. Also, if the pope wanted to go for a walk, you walked with him. It was like living in a family and being with the pope at all times whenever the pope needed any help.

As personal secretary, you were literally living in the shadow of the pope. And what a privilege it was.

What do you remember most about Pope John Paul II?

I traveled to 63 countries with John Paul II. The greatest joy for me was to accompany the Holy Father to my own country of Ireland in 1979. I remember, during that visit, every venue was absolutely packed with hundreds of thousands of people.

The Holy Father said to me, “Father John, how many people in Ireland?” I said to him, “Three and a half million.” He answered, “I think by the end of this visit I will have seen more than 3.5 million.”

He was a man who was very lovely to live with because he was just like a brother. Paul VI to me was [like] my father; he treated me as a son. The others treated me as a brother.

What lasting memory of John Paul II’s life do you have?

I had a deep prayer life with John Paul II. The very first week, the night before the Mass of inauguration of his pontificate (Oct. 22, 1978), I couldn’t find him in the papal apartment. From the Secretariat of State came a monsignor to the private apartment with the final text of the Pope’s homily seeking final approval before it would be translated into various languages. I was worried we lost the Pope.

I went to Msgr. (now Cardinal) Stanislaw Dziwisz, his Polish private secretary, and said, ‘We have lost the Pope’. He said, ‘Did you look in the papal chapel?’ I said I had and I didn’t see him. He insisted I return to the chapel, without turning on the lights, and look more carefully. There I found him, arms outstretched, prostrate before the tabernacle in the form of a cross.

That night I realized I was dealing with somebody very great because here was the Vicar, prostrate before Christ himself in colloquy, preparing himself for the task before him.

Many times I saw him at the end of a long day, after great adulation given to him. He’d come into the chapel and prostrate himself before the Lord.

I witnessed this heart-stirring posture of Pope John Paul II on several occasions, especially during the pastoral visits he made throughout the world. Several times I would find him prostrate before the tabernacle. It takes great strength of faith and deep devotion to do that. From the very beginning I knew we had a giant of spirituality as the Vicar of Christ.

What about Pope John Paul I?

From the very beginning, John Paul I made it quite clear to me his pontificate was going to be very short. I remember receiving a private letter from a monsignor in the Vatican to the Holy Father. He wrote to compliment him on his election and said, “Permit me to make a point. From the point of view of history (he was an official historian) I think you made a mistake calling yourself John Paul the First. [Technically, the ‘I’ wouldn’t be added until there was a ‘II.’]”

The Holy Father pointed out, “My name is John Paul I because I will be a short time, and then the Second will come. The second is coming soon.”

Not only did he predict his pontificate would be short, but he also predicted his successor would take the name John Paul II.

What do you remember of Pope Paul VI?

It was my first day, December 27, 1974, the feast of St. John the Beloved Disciple. I had been called by Paul VI to work with him. Pope Paul welcomed me to his home, like a father.

That day we went to lunch together. He was such a warm-hearted person. After that first lunch he said, “Would you like to come for a walk with me on the garden roof?”

To go there we had to take a small elevator with room only for two. Msgr. [Pasquale] Macchi, the first secretary, handed me a bunch of keys. I stepped into the elevator with the Pope. It was quite emotional for me. … I put the key into keyhole No. 6 and the elevator took off.

The Pope asked me, “How long are you here in my house?” I was surprised at his question and I answered, “A few hours, Holy Father.” He said, “How strange, I am here 13 years and no one ever thought of giving me a key to this elevator.”

I was embarrassed. The door opened onto a beautiful roof garden. The sun was shining. I was thinking, knowing that I still had to answer the Holy Father’s query. The Holy Spirit inspired me.

I said, “These keys I have in my hand are nothing compared to the keys you carry, Holy Father.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but they are heavy in my pocket.”

From that day on I realized how heavy the responsibility of Paul VI was.

How would you summarize your overall experiences with these popes?

I never had any doubt that I was living with three saints. After Paul VI’s death I remember thinking, I hope to live to see Paul VI raised to the altar as Paul the Great.

I would not be surprised to see John Paul II canonized as St. John Paul the Great.

When you became Bishop of Cloyne, you instituted perpetual Eucharistic adoration in your diocese. What are some fruits from it?

I indicated three reasons for it. First, a greater increase in vocations to the priesthood. Second, a presence in the diocese of contemplative nuns. Third, to have full employment for our people.

I have ordained every year in my diocese. This is my 20th year, and the numbers increased enormously. [More than 120 new priests.] At present I have 10 young men considering entering seminary this current year. We also got the Benedictine Sisters (Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre) who established a convent in the cathedral parish of my diocese. In my diocese we have been blessed with virtually no unemployment. (The Diocese of Cloyne is among three located in County Cork).

I have 46 parishes, and I established perpetual adoration in 10 of the urban parishes. People would come in from the outlying parishes to be part of the adoration. They’d return to their main parishes [and Eucharistic adoration would begin there].

Since I introduced the Eucharistic adoration program in my diocese, the same Eucharistic adoration program has spread to every diocese in Ireland.

 

Doesn’t the annual pilgrimage you lead to Lourdes attract many?

Last year, we had 1,452 [pilgrims]. This year, we already topped 1,500. The pilgrimage is June 1. There is a special grace with every pilgrimage — I believe a special grace to a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

I have found amazing conversions among the youth.

There are absolute miracles of grace in Lourdes, more of conversions, reconciliation, and strengthening of faith, especially among young people finding it difficult to express their faith at home became of peer pressure. [They say] it’s made a change in our life and we’re going to profess our faith more courageously when we go home. I have seen some young people at night at Lourdes spending time kneeling on the ground; they’re absolutely at home with Our Lady.

Joseph Pronechen writes

from Trumbull, Connecticut.