Pope John Paul II at 25 Years

BOSTON — Millions of Catholics worldwide have seen Pope John Paul II from afar, either at large gatherings or on television, but far fewer have been blessed with the opportunity to share a meal or conversation with the Pope. The stories they tell paint a more personal picture of Karol Wojtyla.

Ray Flynn remembered his first meeting with then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla when the archbishop first came to the United States in 1969 to speak at Harvard University.

“At the time I was running for state representative,” recalled Flynn, the former mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican from 1993 to 1997. “I was introduced to the archbishop by Cardinal Richard Cushing, who was a neighborhood friend of our family.”

Cardinal Cushing introduced Flynn as “a famous athlete whose father was a very devout Catholic and a good union dockworker.”

Archbishop Wojtyla told Flynn about an article he had published in a Polish newspaper. The topic of the article was dockworkers in Marseilles, France, and dealt with Pope Leo XII's 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (on capital and labor).

“I had been a student of Rerum Novarum, and so we became friends,” Flynn said. “Archbishop Wojtyla later sent me a copy of the article. Little did I realize that he would become the leader of the Roman Catholic Church or that I would be visiting him in Rome as the mayor of Boston.”

“Many people speak of John Paul's legacy and his role in the collapse of communism,” Flynn said, “but on many occasions I have seen an amazing side of him. The special love he has for people is the greatness of the man.”

One memory Flynn said would remain with his family forever occurred during his time as ambassador. His son, Ray Jr., was experiencing severe depression and the family was uncertain how to deal with it. Somehow, word reached the Pope.

“I was at a formal diplomatic function where the Holy Father had given us a presentation about an issue of some significance,” Flynn said.

“After the presentation, we lined up and the Holy Father, as was his custom, came down the line to greet us,” he continued. “When he came to me he looked up at me and said, 'Ambassador, how is your son doing? I pray for him all the time. With Our Lady's help he will become a healthy and strong boy and a young man. If there is ever any way that I can help, you let me know.'”

Overwhelmed with emotion and with tears welling up in his eyes, Flynn could only respond, “Holy Father, thank you so much.” Approximately 10 months later the Flynns observed their son was getting noticeably better.

The Holy Father later invited the entire Flynn family to meet him following midnight Christmas Mass.

“At about 2 a.m. we were escorted to a private room,” Flynn said. “There he met all six of our children and placed his hand on my son's forehead and prayed with him. This was just our family, but I've seen so many other times when he would stop and greet others — the poor, the weak, the infirm, the disabled, the elderly and gypsies.”

Flynn also recalled the Holy Father's penchant for Polish food.

One night he received a call from the Pope's secretary inviting him to the Vatican because the Holy Father wanted to communicate a message to then President Bill Clinton. Flynn went immediately.

“When I reached the apostolic apartment, there was a significant smell of kielbasa and cabbage,” Flynn said.

“I told the Holy Father, 'You know where I come from. I know that smell very, very well.'”

John Paul responded, “I should have invited you to come to dinner to have kielbasa with me. Every time you come here, I give you pasta.”

“I can get pasta everywhere,” Flynn said. “Some good kielbasa is what I'm in the mood for.”

On another occasion, Flynn met the Holy Father for breakfast.

“I should have invited you for dinner,” the Pope told Flynn. “I didn't think I could give you kielbasa for breakfast.”

Meals were often working times for the Holy Father, Flynn said, especially at lunch.

“I've seen him on many occasions where he is working and fumbling around with his food,” Flynn said. “Before you knew it, they were collecting the plates and he had barely taken any.”

'He Cleaned His Plate'

Twenty-year-old Robin Cam-marota said the Pope was one of the few people who cleaned his plate when she had lunch with him.

Cammarota, a third-year student at Hunter College in New York City, was one of 14 youths who spent two hours with the Holy Father during a private luncheon last year at World Youth Day in Toronto.

Active with her Catholic Youth Organization at St. Francis de Chantal Parish in the Bronx, Cammarota was invited in February 2002 by her Catholic Youth Organization director to be part of the luncheon.

The luncheon took place in July 2002 at the Holy Father's retreat on Strawberry Island near Toronto.

After Cammarota introduced herself to him, the Holy Father asked if she had been in New York City on Sept. 11.

“After telling him that I was there, he said that it was a terrible day and that he would keep us in his prayers,” Cammarota recalled.

The youth enjoyed a meal of spaghetti, asparagus and coleslaw, followed by cake.

“I think the Holy Father really liked the cake,” said Anneke Pehmoller of Germany.

“He ate more than I did,” Cammarota said. “He really cleaned his plate. When he was finished with the meal, he pushed his plate away, which gave us a good laugh.”

The highlight of the luncheon for Cammarota was telling John Paul that she shared his birthday.

“As the Holy Father was saying goodbye, I said, 'Your Holy Father, I was born on your birthday, May 18. In fact, when you turned 81, I turned 18.'”

With that, the Pope began to sing “Happy Birthday” in both English and Spanish.

“The 14 of us saw his weakness as well as his strength,” Cammarota said. “Many of us left that day feeling as though we had spent a day with our grandfather.”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.