The post was submitted by Archbishop Jerome Hanus, O.S.B. Archbishop Jerome is the retired archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa. He is a monk of Conception Abbey and was elected as Abbot of the monastery in 1977. In 1987, he was named bishop of St. Cloud, Minnesota. During his time as Abbot and Bishop, he visited with Pope John Paul II several times over the years.
As abbot of Conception Abbey and later as Bishop of Saint Cloud and Archbishop of Dubuque, I had several opportunities to meet Pope John Paul II. I recall at least eleven such occasions. I will describe four of these in the following paragraphs.
My first personal visit with Pope John Paul II took place in September of 1980. During that year, all Benedictines were celebrating the sesquimillenium (the 1500th birthday) of Saint Benedict. To mark the occasion, I agreed to lead a pilgrimage to Europe. The trip was organized by Father Gilbert Stack, OSB, a Conception monk who operated a travel agency out of his small operation called Bethlehem Cave in South Dakota. Our group was composed of 250 people, practically all of them associated with Conception Abbey in some way. Among the monks on the trip were: Abbot Anselm Coppersmith, Father Gilbert Stack, Father Lawrence Gidley, Father Alphonse Sitzmann, Brother Julius Reid, and Father Aidan McSorley. We arrived in Rome on Saturday, September 6 and on the following day we went to Castel Gandolfo for the regular Sunday audience of the Pope.
For the face to face visit with Pope John Paul II, I was accompanied by Father Alphonse and Father Gilbert. We brought with us gold versions of the special medals we had produced for the sesquimillenium: medals of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. We were in a large room, with about fifty other people. The Holy Father made his way to each of the individuals or small groups. When he came to the three of us, we greeted him (one of the pictures shows Father Alphonse kneeling to kiss his ring. Father Alphonse was a big man, but seemed to have no trouble getting up from his knees). We introduced ourselves and explained something about the medals, but more about Conception Abbey. The Holy Father said, “You are a very young abbot.” I recall him saying how important contemplation was for our world. We also gave him a volume of selected writings by Mark Twain, something that had been suggested and donated by the brother of Father Placid Immegart. The Immegarts were from Hannibal, the boyhood home Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). The Holy Father was delighted to receive it and said that he enjoyed reading Mark Twain and there probably wasn’t a copy of this in the Vatican Library. At one point, the Holy Father put both of his hands on my shoulders and pressed down very hard and, I presume, encouraged me to be a good abbot. I remember how strong he looked. This meeting took place before he suffered the assassination attempt (in May of 1981). So, he was only 60 years old – and I was only 40.
In June of 1987, I was appointed Bishop of Saint Cloud by Pope John Paul II. This meant that, like other bishops, I would to make a full report to the Holy Father and to the various other officials on the condition of the diocese for which I was responsible. When I made my first ad limina visit in 1988, John Paul was still very strong and active. He considered these ad limina visits to be very important. All of us bishops from the Province of Saint Paul and Minneapolis were in Rome for at least a week. On one of the first days, we celebrated Mass with the Holy Father. Then each of us had a private session with him, which lasted at least fifteen minutes. When you entered the room, he was seated at a desk, with a map in front of him, and some papers, which I presume contained some essential information about this bishop and the diocese he served. I remember the Pope asking me how the diocese came to be called “Saint Cloud.” After giving him the explanation, we discussed the situation in the diocese. I remember in particular describing the situation with health care. Historically, in central Minnesota, hospitals had been established by the Benedictine and Franciscan Sisters. They continued to serve a high percentage of the population. I explained that one problem we faced concerned how we were to serve people who were not Catholics. Since most of the health care was given by the Catholic hospitals and systems, non Catholics at times asked for medical procedures which were not offered by the Catholic hospitals. I mentioned in particular vasectomies and tubal ligations. He showed interest in this and asked me to explain further, which I did. Fortunately, I was well informed about the situation, because of service on hospital boards and because of my having taught medical ethics for some years. The meeting with the Pope concluded with an exchange of gifts and with formal picture taking. A couple days later, all the bishops of the province were invited to have lunch with the Holy Father. I believe there were twelve of us bishops. We sat around the table and the Holy Father engaged us in lively conversation throughout the meal which lasted probably an hour and a half. At one point, a bishop asked the Holy Father if he was working on any particular project during these months. He said, “Yes, I am preparing a document on ethics.” Then his eyes kind of lit up and he looked around the table, and found me, and pointing to me, he said, “That Benedictine abbé told him that there are non Catholics in his diocese who want to be sterilized. I find that interesting because in Poland the Communist government used sterilization as a means of control and punishment.” I was somewhat surprised that he remembered the conversation we had, given the fact that he must have had a few dozen conversations in that time frame.
The year 1989 was the centennial of the Diocese of St. Cloud. A large pilgrimage was organized. When we arrived in Rome, we were informed that we should present ourselves as a group in the colonnade on the right side of St. Peter’s Square. At the appropriate time, the Swiss Guards would escort us inside the Vatican to the place where the Pope would be having the audience. Obviously we arrived there early, and as we were milling around, a young man came up to me, holding a microphone and a tape recorder. He wanted to interview me; he was from Vatican Radio. I agreed. He first asked, “What did you think of the Pope’s talk to your group?” To say the least, I was surprised. We hadn’t been to the audience yet. So I asked, “What talk? Is the Pope going to speak to us? Do you have a copy of what he is going to say?” Sure enough, he had an advance copy. He allowed me to read it hurriedly and we had the interview. That was the first I knew that we apparently were going to have an audience all alone with the Pope, and that he was going to deliver a talk. I knew enough about protocol so I presumed that it was expected that I would give a formal greeting to the Pope to get the audience started. But no one had told me. So I quickly got a piece of paper and made some notes on what I should say. Before long, the Swiss Guards led us into the Vatican and all the way into the Sala Clementina. Everyone had a seat; seats were prepared for the Pope and for me, at his side. After he came in, one of his aides led me to a microphone where I gave the short talk I had prepared. Then he gave his prepared talk (the text can be found in the diocesan centennial book). He made the ex tempore comment, “You have a very young bishop.” Then he posed for a picture with the people. As he and I were moving among the people, he again commented to some of the people, “You have a very young bishop.” As he was leaving the room, he said it a third time, “You are a very young bishop.” By this time, I had the courage to respond, “Your Holiness, you have yourself to blame for that.”
In August of 1994, I was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Dubuque and I became the Archbishop in October of 1995. That meant that I had to go to Rome at the next Feast of Saints Peter and Paul to receive from the Holy Father the symbol of an archbishop’s position, namely the pallium. Again we organized a pilgrimage which included people from Dubuque, members of my family, and some Conception monks, including Abbot James Jones. We arrived in Rome the day before the big ceremony, which took place on the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Paul in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pope celebrated the Mass and about thirty of us archbishops received the pallium from the Holy Father. It was a grand celebration, all of it recorded on DVD. We were also working hard to get some kind of an audience with the Holy Father. Father Richard Cleary, OSB, who was stationed at Sant’ Anselmo at that time, was a big help in this regard. Sure enough, Pope John Paul agreed to grant us an audience. This one did not include any talks, but it was an audience just for the members of our group, and it was held in the large Sala Clementina. Unlike 1989, there were no chairs in the room, either for the Pope or for the people. The people were directed to line up, single file, around the walls of the room. The Holy Father came into the room. After I greeted him, he proceeded to go around and greet each individual personally. I accompanied him, giving him the names of each person, as best as I could remember. All of these personal encounters were recorded on both DVD and still camera. The participants in the pilgrimage have treasured these records of their once-in-a-life-time meeting with Pope John Paul II.
My last visit with Pope John Paul II was on the occasion of the ad limina visit in 2004. By this time, the Pope was 84 years old and in poor health. The only event with him present was the private one-on-one meeting. The Pope was seated at a desk when I entered. I sat down next to him. We were told that he would not do much speaking, and that we should carry on the “conversation.” So I introduced myself and explained some things about what was happening in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. I assured him of the prayers of all the clergy, religious and laity of the Archdiocese. After a few minutes of monologue, I asked him if he had a message for the people of the Archdiocese. He looked at me, and then uttered the word, “Message.” But nothing more. So I resumed talking, sharing more aspects of life in the Archdiocese. After a couple more minutes, I again asked if he wished to share some words or some message that I could take back to the Archdiocese. Again, he looked at me and after some silence uttered again the word, “Message.” Once more, I attempted to communicate, assuring the Pope of our prayers and thanking him for his service to the Church. I sensed that my time was about up. I reached out and touched his hand. He looked at me somewhat intently. But his Parkinson’s disease had “frozen” his facial expression and I could not sense that interest and smile which had always characterized him. As I looked him directly in the eyes, he raised his hand and touched his head and mumbled, “Head … hurt.” I felt both guilty that he was being put through this for me and appreciative of his desire to be present to us bishops.
So those are some of the times that I was privileged to meet and visit with Pope John Paul II.