6 Bishops Who Knew John Paul II Share Their Memories of Him

“If the Pope is afraid, then the Church is afraid. And, the Church must never be afraid.”

Bishop René Gracida with Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, shortly before he was named Pope John Paul II.
Bishop René Gracida with Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, shortly before he was named Pope John Paul II. (photo: Photo Provided)

May 18 is the 98th anniversary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II (1920-2005). Elected in 1978, he went on to serve over 26 years as pope, making him among the longest-serving popes in history. He had a major impact on the Church, including through the appointment of many bishops. I spoke to six bishops who have met Pope John Paul II and asked them to share their memories of him.


Robert Carlson, Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri

I admire Pope St. John Paul II. He was a man of prayer. He believed in freedom of religion and battled for years with the communists. I met him on a number of occasions. Once, for example, when I was an auxiliary bishop for Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis, I recall him saying of me: “He’s a very young bishop. He has many years of suffering ahead.”


Paul Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Pope John Paul II was elected my first year in the seminary. He inspired me as a seminarian and priest and appointed me to be a bishop. I met him as a bishop-elect on an ad limina visit and received a pectoral cross from him which I still wear.


John Doerfler, Bishop of Marquette, Michigan

As a young man, my heroes included Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict. When I was a seminarian, I studied theology at North American College in Rome. I had the privilege of serving Mass for Pope John Paul II. It was the beatification mass of St. Katharine Drexel, and they wanted American seminarians to serve at the Mass. I was one of the lucky ones whose name was pulled out of the hat.

I met Pope John Paul briefly after Mass. I remember my exchange with him. I assured the Holy Father I was praying for him. He said, “Well, we’ll pray for each other.”


René Henry Gracida, the retired Bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas

In 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, heard about a program with which I was involved with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He invited me to come to Poland to speak to him about it. I went to Krakow, but our visit was cut short when Pope John Paul I died unexpectedly. He had to go to Rome for the conclave that elected him pope.

In the time we did have together, he was fascinated that I was an airman during World War II. He asked me hundreds of questions. We became friends. I have a cherished place for him in my heart.


Robert Morlino, Bishop of Madison, Wisconsin

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to have met two great saints: Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul. They show the greatness of what can be accomplished with one’s life. During one of my meetings with Pope John Paul, he said to me, “If the Pope is afraid, then the Church is afraid. And, the Church must never be afraid.” That’s always very alive in my mind.


Thomas Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix, Arizona

(Bishop Olmsted lived in Rome for 16 years, including nine years while working with the Vatican Secretariat of State, and interacted personally with Pope John Paul II.) Pope John Paul II is a great hero of mine. His teaching inspires me constantly. He was a man of great holiness. He was a man of tremendous gifts. He spoke many different languages. He had a great love for poetry and was a poet himself. He had a love for drama and was a playwright. The Holy Father had a great interest in marriage which led to the promotion of the Theology of the Body.

This article originally appeared April 21, 2018, at the Register.