John Paul II Shows His Pastoral Style on Parish Visits

“It Is Not a Ritual,” Says Historian Andrea Riccardi

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ROME, DEC. 17, 2001 (ZENIT.orgAvvenire).- John Paul II´s visit to a Roman parish on Sunday, the 300th of his pontificate, reveals interesting elements of this pontificate, says historian Andrea Riccardi, the founder of Community of Sant´Egidio.

“I remember the first visit he made to a parish in the Garbatella neighborhood 23 years ago,” Riccardi recalled in an interview. “We of the Community of Sant´Egidio had a kindergarten there.”

“When the Pope passed us, we called to him and he had the car stopped,” he said. “He got down, came over, and sat down on one of the children´s little chairs at the day-care center. He said to us: ´Tell me, who are you?´ We realized immediately that he was a bishop who wanted to know his people.” It was Dec. 3, 1978.

–Q: What is the significance of these 300 Sunday parish visits in John Paul II´s pontificate?

–Riccardi: It was custom that had already begun with John XXIII and was continued by Paul VI, except that up until then, these meetings had a symbolic character.

With John Paul II, instead, they have become a systematic contact of the Pope with his diocese. During these visits, he acts like a bishop, and he is very open to hear what [the people] have to say. It is not a ritual visit.

This is also seen in the planning of these appointments: On the eve, he first meets with the priests who work in the parish; he usually invites them to dinner. Then he visits the community.

–Q: As the Pope who visits a parish?

–Riccardi: He is not the Pope of oceanic multitudes. He really wants to meet with the people and have the people be with him. He stops to talk with the elderly, he lets the children ask him questions. He wants to know the movements. He does not enter the church and speak as Pope, as happened with Pope John´s visits.

Wojtyla is a bishop who submerges himself in little things. He knows that these are his people, his folk. One might ask: “Why does the Pope waste so much time with these people?” The answer is that for him it is not a waste of time. He is the man who questions: He asks, he wants to know.

It is precisely his great human interest that becomes a communion with the people. It is not an abstract but an affective communion. The same communion that is expressed later in the liturgy: During the Mass, this Pope who spends himself in the midst of the people of the neighborhood, is known as a man of prayer.

–Q: But what remains of the Pontiff´s visit to a parish?

–Riccardi: The memories of those who met him remain — the fact that in the future many can say: “I have seen him. … My mother placed me in his arms when I was a child.” It is a direct contact, a sense of family that makes you realize that the Pope is in Rome. I think this is a special stamp of our Catholicism.

Then, of course, there are the words: the instructions of the Pope from these visits. Keeping in mind, however, that John Paul II is not obsessed with giving a directive in every situation. His real concern is that we be Christians together. It is to reinforce communication of the Gospel. Precisely because of this, after meeting him, many communities have returned to the mission.

–Q: The Pope underlines the ties that link these parish visits to his universal ministry.

–Riccardi: I have always been impressed that all over the world Wojtyla always appears as the Bishop of Rome. In the ecumenical vein, this is a most important fact: It explains well that he is not a super-bishop, but the Bishop of Rome who exercises his primacy. And John Paul II did not want it to be simply a title but an effective and affective reality.

Over these years he has truly acted as the Bishop of Rome: 300 visits are 300 half-days, 300 meetings with priests. Then there is his relation with the city: He often makes this play on words “Roma/amor” [Rome/love]. And the people feel this.

He is not the Pope who descends to the parish to give himself to the masses, as if it were a pious exercise. He really wants to meet with his own, with a tone that has nothing solemn about it.

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