By Steve Vivona
On April 4 the University community came together for a special
Mass in St. Thomas More Church to commemorate the life and ministry
of Pope John Paul II. Reverend Donald J. Harrington, C.M.,
President, who had only returned from Rome the previous evening,
served as principal celebrant and homilist.
During his homily Fr. Harrington noted that his presence in Rome
on University business allowed him to briefly participate in the
sacred vigil held in St. Peter’s Square on the day of the Pontiff’s
death. “There were thousands of people standing there (in the
Square), quiet. My first reaction was that I was in a Church,” Fr.
As he stood among the throngs Fr. Harrington reflected on his
personal meetings with the Pope. In 1989, following his appointment
as President of St. John’s, Fr. Harrington was invited to Rome for
an audience with Pope John Paul. He celebrated Mass with the Holy
Father in his private chapel and met with him afterward.
“He spoke of the great importance of Catholic higher education
and he spoke of the importance of St. John’s in American Catholic
higher education, much of which he knew from Cardinal O’Connor.” At
the time, Fr. Harrington noted, the Pontiff was formulating the
papal document, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Pope John Paul told
Fr. Harrington how important it was for St. John’s to play a
leadership role in shaping and living out the tenets of that
On two more occasions Fr. Harrington had audiences with the Pope
and both times he was struck by the Pontiff’s warmth and concern
for St. John’s. During one audience the Pope queried Fr. Harrington
about how the Rome campus was faring. Noting that the Rome Campus
is located on Vatican property and that Pope John Paul was “our
landlord,” Fr. Harrington said he was moved by the Holy Father’s
As Fr. Harrington shared those memories I too found myself
reminiscing about my own experiences in the presence of Pope John
Paul II. Ten years ago I was a new reporter for The Long Island
Catholic and still adjusting to my first “real job,” when it
was announced the Pope would be visiting New York.
The paper only had two reporters which meant I would definitely
have the chance to see him in person and the prospect was both
thrilling and nerve-wracking. Though there were staff members more
experienced and knowledgeable on Church matters, I was to be on the
“front lines” for the entire experience.
I traveled to the Aqueduct Mass with members of my own parish.
My only mandate was to gauge their reactions as they anticipated
the Mass and afterward. At the Mass I was in the press box and the
Pontiff was little more than a white dot who I could see on TV
monitors with better clarity. It was still a moving experience for
me, but it also gave me a better perspective on the deep faith of
some people I had known for years and how this experience meant so
much to them.
A few days later I had a much more intimate experience of Pope
John Paul II. In the gallery of the United Nations General Assembly
I had one of the best seats in the house. I was seated in the first
row and when the Pope entered the great hall I stood up, looked
down and there he was, no more than 20 feet below me. He moved
slowly to the podium and it was clear his energy was sapped
somewhat by his ailments. But when he spoke his words were riveting
and he held his audience in thrall as he delivered the address in
several different languages.
It was clear that after only eight months as a reporter I had
already scaled the greatest heights the job would ever hold for me.
In the presence of one of the most influential men of the 20th
century I couldn’t be a dispassionate journalist about it. It
permeated my recounting of the event. I couldn’t help but feel in
that moment I wasn’t just recording history but witnessing it.
As Fr. Harrington concluded his homily he stressed that as a
University we are blessed that Pope John Paul knew us and our
mission. “But with that blessing comes responsibility. I issue a
challenge to myself and each of you. We have to let God and John
Paul II work through us. We cannot say we are touched by this man,
we admire and love this man and not say, ‘What does that call us to