Conversation with the Cardinals

A new cathedral dedicated to Christ, and the role of Pope St. John Paul II

By Bill Brewer and Angel Brewer

Opening weekend for the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus was all about Christ.

Pope St. John Paul II had a role, too.

And once the new cathedral had been dedicated March 3 and the first Masses celebrated, attention turned to the 263rd successor to the seat of St. Peter, who was the topic of discussion for the second Conversation with the Cardinals on March 4.

Following the weekend Masses, a section of sanctuary in front of the cathedral nave transitioned to the set for the conversation that featured Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Cardinal William Levada, and Archbishop Christophe Pierre.

Bishop Richard F. Stika emceed the two-hour discussion about St. John Paul, his papacy, and his legacy.

But this wasn’t your ordinary armchair analysis of the pope’s 26-year pontificate. Men of the Church who directly served Pope St. John Paul II for years, led by Cardinal Dziwisz, offered intimate details of his historic term as one of the most beloved popes in recent history.

Cardinal Dziwisz served as personal secretary to the pontiff from the time he was Archbishop Karol Józef Wojtyla of the Archdiocese of Kraków until the pope’s death on April 2, 2005, at the age of 84.

Cardinal Rigali accompanied Pope St. John Paul II on many of his international trips and also served the pontiff in the Roman Curia in the Secretariat of State, as secretary of the Congregation of Bishops, and secretary of the College of Cardinals. The pope appointed Cardinal Rigali archbishop of St. Louis and then archbishop of Philadelphia before elevating him to cardinal.

Cardinal Levada was named by Pope St. John Paul II to serve as archbishop of Portland, Ore., and as archbishop of San Francisco. He then served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Catholic Church’s chief theologian, under Pope Benedict XVI and was the highest- ranking American in the Roman Curia at that time.

Pope Francis named Archbishop Pierre apostolic nuncio to the United States in 2016 after he had held the same position in Mexico, Haiti, and Uganda. As apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Pierre is the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States.

Bishop Stika moderated the discussion among those who have walked with saints.

The event, which was the second Conversation with the Cardinals moderated by Bishop Stika, served as the closing ceremony for the cathedral dedication weekend.

Bishop Stika began the intimate conversation by telling the audience of more than 500 people that it was a great honor to present three cardinals and the apostolic nuncio to the United States.

“If I mess up tonight, I am in danger because I have here someone I live with (Cardinal Rigali), someone who has great relationships with a saint (Cardinal Dziwisz), someone who is in charge of the doctrine of the faith (Cardinal Levada), and a nuncio. Please pray for me,” Bishop Stika quipped.

Those in attendance were entertained by Bishop Stika’s signature quick wit and ease with an audience. However, it was the solemnity of the moment and the focus on Pope St. John Paul II that quickly took center stage. And that pleased no one more than Bishop Stika.

Bishop Stika expressed gratitude for the prelates’ presence in Knoxville to attend the dedication of the new cathedral. And he singled out Cardinal Dziwisz, who traveled from Poland to represent Pope St. John Paul II.

“We are so privileged to have someone close to saints, especially Pope St. John Paul II. To have Cardinal Dziwisz with us here in the Diocese of Knoxville is a tremendous honor,” Bishop Stika said.

The bishop told audience members that the co-patron of the Diocese of Knoxville was a man who, early in his life, served as archbishop of Kraków, Poland, became the Holy Father after succeeding a pope whose papacy lasted only 33 days. Pope St. John Paul II was canonized a saint in 2014.

Pope St. John Paul II was the second-longest serving pope in modern history, whose pontificate lasted 26 years. For the entirety of his tenure, he was aided by Cardinal Dziwisz, who, when the pope was elected on Oct. 16, 1978, was a monsignor and already serving as then-Archbishop Wojtyla’s personal secretary. The longtime influential aide to Pope St. John Paul II shared personal accounts of his time with the pontiff.

It became obvious to the audience that Cardinal Dziwisz’s duties as personal secretary actually were more a sacred friendship with the pope.

It was Cardinal Dziwisz whose arms Pope St. John Paul II fell into when the pope was shot during an assassination attempt three years into his papacy. It was Cardinal Dziwisz who anointed the pope when the medical professionals feared he would not survive the shooting, and it was Cardinal Dziwisz, whom the pope affectionately referred to as “Stasiu,” who snuck off in anonymity with the pope numerous times to go snow skiing, a sport they both relished.

Bishop Stika referred to a biography of Pope St. John Paul II that Cardinal Dziwisz wrote titled My Life with Karol, which the bishop endorsed.

In explaining the implications of a priest from a communist country being elected pope, Cardinal Dziwisz referred to his own experiences as a child born and raised in occupied Poland.

Born in 1939, Cardinal Dziwisz was a boy when Nazi Germany occupied Poland, and he talked, through his translator, Father Tomasz Szopa, of the desperate times then.

“Everyone was poor; it was very messy,” he said. He recalled how his parents took in a Jewish man, gave him shelter, and fed him even though he was not a Christian because, as the cardinal recalled, his father said, “A man needs to eat, he needs to be rescued, that is why he was welcomed at our house.”

The cardinal also told of a convent close to his family home where the sisters were taking in young Jewish women, sharing their holy vestments with them, and teaching them Christian phrases and prayers so the Jewish women could pass as Catholic sisters. Those sisters were eventually betrayed by a neighbor and reported to the Nazis; they were all put in prison and the mother superior of the house was sent to the Nazi-run Auschwitz death camp, where she died.

Bishop Stika took that opportunity to point out how the home is always the first “seminary” for any man called to the priesthood.

“His vocation was nurtured at home, because he witnessed mercy and he witnessed kindness and care for another person, regardless of their faith. His first seminary professors were his parents,” Bishop Stika said of Cardinal Dziwisz. “That is why it is so important for all of you who have children and grandchildren to nurture by example vocations, so that we have more priests like these fine men who are here today.”

Archbishop Pierre echoed those sentiments when he told of how he entered the seminary at the age of 17. He recalled a recent visit with his nephews when one of them asked how old he was when he entered the seminary. When Archbishop Pierre responded that he was 17, his young nephew responded incredulously, “17 … but you had not lived.”

Archbishop Pierre smiled as he told of how he responded that he had lived and that his parents were very educated and an active part society. The archbishop advised that he learned his vocation from his parents at home.

“Those were different times,” he said.

Bishop Stika commented on the impact that all of the holy men present that night had on other holy men. The three cardinals and the papal nuncio have had roles in men finding out that they were being assigned as bishops.

Cardinal Levada revealed how he received a call from an archbishop telling him he would be bishop. He was flying out on a “red eye” when he got word to call the archbishop. “Bill, are you alone?” the archbishop asked. Cardinal Levada assured him he was alone and recalled how fretful the night flight was once he learned that he would soon be elevated to bishop.

Bishop Stika asked the cardinals where they were and what their response was when they heard that Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyla from Kraków, Poland, had just been elected pope. Cardinal Rigali, who was a monsignor at the time, was on one of the side balconies at the Vatican when it was announced.

Cardinal Levada, also a monsignor at the time, was in Vatican City and quickly proceeded to St. Peter’s Square when he heard that white smoke was billowing from the chimney. He was standing with an Italian monsignor when the name “Karol Józef Wojtyla” was announced.

“It’s a Polish guy,” the other monsignor said to then-Monsignor Levada. “First the prime minister, now this. Poor Italy,” Cardinal Levada recalled. Italy’s prime minister had been assassinated not long before.

Cardinal Levada quickly followed the story by saying, “I say that because it was a spontaneous reaction from a wonderfully dedicated gentleman of the Church, but also a son of Italy who thought, ‘What’s going to happen to us now?’”

Cardinal Dziwisz went on to explain how terrified the Eastern European communist countries were, especially Russia, that a man from a communist country had been elected pope.

“From the very beginning, right after the installation, the Communist Party was very much afraid of John Paul; they didn’t know how to renounce what he was doing. They were afraid because they were very much aware that he knew communism very well, he was aware of all the weaknesses within this system, and they were very much afraid of that,” Cardinal Dziwisz related. Indeed, Pope St. John Paul II played a monumental role in the demise of the communist-controlled Soviet Union.

Cardinal Dziwisz told with gripping detail how then- Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev traveled to Rome on Dec. 1, 1989, to visit Pope St. John Paul II. Following the 1981 shooting, it was widely thought that Russia was behind the failed attempt to kill the pope. Cardinal Dziwisz explained that two things happened quickly after Pope St. John Paul II was shot: in hushed tones that only those closest to the pope heard, he immediately forgave the man who tried to kill him; he also realized quickly that the date was May 13, 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. Pope St. John Paul II had himself investigated the apparitions and called for the “third secret” to be revealed.

Our Lady of Fatima asked, in her third secret, that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart, and Pope St. John Paul II determined that it would be so. So, as Cardinal Dziwisz said, “It was not easy,” but the pope did consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in St. Peter’s Square, where the original statue of Our Lady of Fatima had been brought from Portugal to Rome.

“After this consecration of the communist country of Russia to Our Lady,” the cardinal continued, “there were bishops coming from Eastern Europe to Rome, and they were saying to Pope St. John Paul II after this happened that they were feeling already the changes that were happening in communist Russia with the leader in the Vatican. They could see also the fruit of this act of consecration. Gorbachev confessed to Pope St. John Paul II that for a long time he was studying the doctrine of the Church. He knew the weaknesses of Marxism and communism. He was aware he needed to do something about it. He admitted that he knew of the changes needed, and he was inspired by the social teaching of St. John Paul II.”

Cardinal Rigali recalled when World Youth Day was held in Ireland. He said the Vatican was not sure the youth would come or that it would be a successful event because of conflict in Ireland. However, more than 300,000 young people came to see and hear Pope St. John Paul II. Cardinal Rigali said that the young people applauded 42 times during the pope’s talk, but it was the 41st time that was the most remarkable.

“The young people applauded for 12 1/2 minutes, an impossible amount of time,” Cardinal Rigali said. “And do you know what the pope had said to them? He said, ‘Young people of Ireland, I love you. … I love you.’ The young people responded with a chant, ‘John Paul II, we love you!’ It was fabulous,” Cardinal Rigali recalled.

Bishop Stika closed the evening by reminding the faithful gathered that a statue of Pope St. John Paul II now stands in the south transept of the cathedral, and he again thanked Cardinal Dziwisz for the stole that Pope St. John Paul II frequently wore that the Polish cardinal presented to the Diocese of Knoxville during the dedication Mass.

Cardinal Dziwisz instructed the audience that when they sought the intercession of a saint, they had Pope St. John Paul II to ask for intercession.

“This is my advice to you. If you have difficult situations you encounter, we have a great protector, a great intercessor, and that is John Paul II. I know him myself, and I often talk to him. I now tell him, ‘Holy Father, I was serving you faithfully for 39 years. Now it’s your turn to help me,’” Cardinal Dziwisz said. “And it’s working. Two years ago we had the World Youth Day in Kraków, and we worried about security, about terrorism, and about weather, and we entrusted it over to John Paul II. We asked for his intercession, and it worked out perfectly,” the cardinal added.

As Bishop Stika again thanked the cardinals and the papal nuncio, Cardinal Levada interrupted to say, “Yesterday at the Mass, Bishop Stika said to the congregation, ‘Now I don’t want you coming up to me and saying good job, Bishop, because it wasn’t my job, it was our job.’ But I’m not a member of the diocese, and so I don’t have to be obedient. So I can say, ‘Good job, Bishop.’”

Cardinal Levada was present at the April 19, 2015, groundbreaking for the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and participated in the first Conversation with the Cardinals on April 18, 2015, along with Cardinal Rigali and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of the Diocese of New York. Bishop Stika emceed that event as well.

Bishop Stika received an ovation for his work in leading the project to develop the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and for leading the dedication Mass weekend, one of the Diocese of Knoxville’s most historic events since the diocese was established by Pope St. John Paul II in 1988.

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