Your Lordship Bishop Camillo, what can you tell us of your encounters with Pope John Paul II?
BP. CAMILLO: I was fortunate to have encountered Pope John Paul II at least three times at close quarters. My first encounter with him was during an audience given to the Comboni Provincial Superiors (at that time I was Provincial of Egypt). After our Superior General had given his speech, the Pope said his own intervention, then he blessed us and got ready to leave. But we requested His Holiness for a personal photo. How gracious and patient he was! He consented to take a photograph with each of us (and we were about 30 of us!).
The second time I found myself in his presence was during a meeting of the Episcopal Conference of the Latin Bishops of the Middle East. I was secretary of the Conference and in this capacity I was admitted to the private audience. At these two meetings the Pope was very reserved and serious, quite unlike the private audiences I've had until now as Bishop, with Benedict XVI.
In February 1993, during the Pope's visit to Sudan, I was his interpreter from Arabic to Italian and vice versa in his private meetings with the President of the Republic, Omar al-Bashir (pictured below). What struck me most during the three meetings with the President was that the Pope was extremely prudent to the point of preferring not to comment on some of the statements made by the President. I understood, then, that as Supreme Pontiff he had to be exceedingly careful about what he said. A word more than necessary could cause much damage not only to the Pope but also to the Church.
Were you able to have a private word with him?
BP. CAMILLO: I never had a personal conversation with him. I was not a Bishop when I met John Paul II. I was appointed Bishop in 2005 by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.
Was there anything you wanted to say to (or ask) the Pope?
BP. CAMILLO: Yes. At one of the meetings, the President of the Sudan told the Pope that he was ready to do anything the Pope asked of him. John Paul II remained silent. I intervened and told him to request the President to revoke the "Missionary Societies Act" of 1962, which I understood that the Pope was aware of. However, as the Pope was about to present his request, he was suddenly interrupted by the people in charge to present the official gift to him.
How would you describe the Pope? Why do you think people were so drawn to him, especially the youth?
BP. CAMILLO: He was more a "Pope of the People (Masses)" than a Pope for private meetings. His charisma attracted large crowds as we all know, but in my experience, he was quite reserved at private meetings. People felt a certain closeness with him, even though some had never met him! They would say, "We felt like he was addressing us personally when he spoke to the crowd." He was charismatic and extremely animated, like every mystic.
He was faithful to the Gospel and presented it “sine glossa”, without comments! as it is! The people loved him despite his conservative stand on issues of the day. The Pope demonstrated good leadership and he had the right answers to the world's problems. He symbolized stability and hope in a period of widespread turmoil and despair. I think that's why people were drawn to him. As for our two Vicariates of the Arabian Peninsula, he made decisions that have greatly benefited our apostolate in the region.
He had a special affinity for young people. They felt inspired by his intelligence, honesty, courage and sacrifice. In turn, he was inspired to institute World Youth Day. His hope was that the youth would make a difference in the world. Many priests and seminarians have said that they owe their vocation to the inspiration John Paul II was to them.
Was his conservative position on certain issues a stumbling block?
BP. CAMILLO: His conservatism was never a stumbling block for him. He was not afraid to speak the truth at all times! Sometimes what he had to say was hard to digest and he was misunderstood, but then all the Popes have the same problem because they must be extremely faithful to their vocation as Universal Pastor. They are all saints.
The Holy Father was not only a spiritual leader but also a statesman. What kind of portrait did he paint as a political figure?
John Paul II was a very influential leader of his time. His word was well respected and generally appreciated by the whole world.
[Above: The Pope with former U.S. President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan.]
He championed the cause of religious liberty and all other forms of enslavement. It stemmed from his early years of the Nazi occupation of his beloved Poland and World War II. The Pope has been aptly credited with the fall of Communism. His faith in God and constant prayers were what inspired the people to stand up against the evil regime.
He was nicknamed “the traveling Pope”? What did he achieve through his travels?
BP. CAMILLO: He was definitely history's most traveled Pope. His pontificate was marked by his remarkable journeys to at least 129 countries. For him, they were spiritual journeys. They were an important part of his Christian witness. They were also his way of getting closer to the people and studying first-hand the situation of the Church in each country.
After he visited Sudan, he was so taken up by the situation there that he said to his collaborators that only a saint could have founded the Church in such a place and wanted to know how far the cause of the beatification of Daniel Comboni (today, Saint Daniel Comboni) had reached. He took a personal interest and wanted to give priority to that cause.
He wanted to visit Russia, a goal that he never achieved. He sought for unity and a better understanding with the Orthodox Church of Russia but he encountered problems.
One of the most amazing things about the Pope was the way he reached out to other religions. Surely it wasn’t just an intellectual exercise or respect for religion?
BP. CAMILLO: John Paul II regularly met with believers from other faiths. He was like Jesus Christ reaching out to, and loving all - good people, sinners, tax collectors, etc. And he was successful because he was a perfect witness of Christ. For him, it was not an intellectual pursuit but a consequence of his love for God. He proved that God could not only be studied, but also lived.
What, in your opinion, was his greatest achievement during his lifetime?
BP. CAMILLO: I think there are two: The support that he gave to the new Ecclesial Movements (Focolari, Neo-Catechumenal Way, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in the Holy Spirit, Comunione e Liberazione, etc.) and the World Youth Day. All said and done, there were so many things that this Pope achieved in his lifetime that it is difficult to list them. Let us not forget that he was Pope for almost 27 years which enabled him to accomplish a lot.
As pope, one of his most important roles was to teach the people about Jesus. He wrote several Encyclicals, Apostolic Letters and Exhortations. He reasserted Catholic moral teaching on contraception, traditional marriage, euthanasia and abortion and advocated the dignity of women and the importance of the family.
The Church is very clear that Pope John Paul II is being beatified not for his performance as pope, but for how he lived the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. What are your thoughts on this?
BP. CAMILLO: Yes, the Cause of Sainthood always focuses on holiness, not achievement! Pope Benedict XVI signed the decree recognizing the "heroic virtues" of Pope John Paul II, a move that would advance him along the path to sainthood.
The Pope was a man of intense prayer and devotion. He prayed the liturgy of the hours and the rosary, eventually adding five new luminous mysteries. He spent hours of silent contemplation before the Blessed Sacrament. I remember being told that he would stop for a long time in his private chapel on his way to the dining room. Very often he would invite people to his table for lunch or dinner or even for breakfast and his secretary had to go and remind him that there were guests waiting for him!
He gave himself totally to God. His motto was “Totus Tuus Ego Sum” which in Latin means “I am totally Yours”. His spirituality was very much oriented towards the Blessed Virgin Mary. He said that he owed his life to her when he survived an assassination attempt which took place on May 13th, 1981, the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima. A year later, he made a pilgrimage to Fatima to thank her for her intercession [pictured below]. The bullet that was removed from his body was later placed in the anniversary crown of Our Lady.
We can say that he was a radical, as every saint is radical, not in the sense of being violent or imposing, but because he lived the life of the Gospel in a radical way.
His devotion to the divine mercy of God was a theme he elaborated upon in his encyclical "Dives in Misericordia" ("Rich in Mercy"). It was in the plan of God that his death in 2005 came on the eve of Mercy Sunday, and his beatification on May 1 will be celebrated on Mercy Sunday.
Your Lordship, what are your own thoughts and feelings as the day of his beatification approaches? Are you going to be present in Rome for the celebration?
BP. CAMILLO: Sister Marie Simon-Pierre's miraculous recovery from Parkinson's diesease after praying to John Paul II for his intercession paved the way for his beatification. The Vatican announced on 14 January 2011 that Pope Benedict XVI had confirmed the miracle involving Sister Marie Simon-Pierre and that John Paul II would be be beatified on May 1. May 1 is also commemorated in former communist countries, such as Poland, and some Western European countries as May Day. So, this is an honour to a great man!
According to the Vatican, Pope John Paul II's remains will not be exhumed and exposed, but will be moved to a more prominent location, next to the Chapel of the Pieta, the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and the statues of Popes Pius XI and Pius XII. The new location will increase the number of pilgrims wanting to visit his memorial.
At his beatification there could be at least two million people, more than at any other beatification or canonization, because he was a Pope for all mankind. His beatification will bring in a new era of happiness, courage and faith to the world. Unfortunately, I will not be able to witness his beatification in person.
What would you say is Pope John Paul II’s legacy?
BP. CAMILLO: Definitely, it is to follow Jesus Christ without fear! Christ has overcome the world, and in the footsteps of the Pope we, too, can find the courage to do so. His call to “Be not afraid!” is similar to the one with which he began his pontificate: “Open wide the doors to Jesus Christ!” We know that we are not alone in this “adventure” to follow Jesus Christ; Pope John Paul II did it and he has left us a supreme example to follow. The personal sufferings that he endured are a reminder of how we must carry the Cross. His universal call to holiness is an invitation and an inspiration to every Christian in every walk of life to live a life of sanctity.
[Above: The ailing Pope continued to reach out to the people despite his debilitating illness just a few months before his death.]
Do you think the honorific title “John Paul the Great” should be bestowed upon him?
BP. CAMILLO: His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, referred to him as "the great Pope John Paul II" in his first address from the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica, and he also referred to him as "the Great" in his homily at the Mass of Repose. If Pope John Paul II will be acclaimed as “Great” he would be only the fourth Pope to have this title.
Personally, I am not sure this title would serve any particular purpose. It might even be construed as a lack of respect for the other great Popes who led the Church in very crucial times. John Paul II was definitely the most popular among his immediate predecessors, but popularity is not a criterion to bestow the title of "Great" to somebody. Pope Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and even the present Pope Benedict XVI have all been remarkable and I think they all deserve the title of “Great”.
So, I would prefer if this title was not conferred upon him. Let us consider the Saints as humble disciples of Jesus Christ, as we also should be. There is no need for elaborate titles. The higher we raise them, we risk the feeling of being more distant from them. In any case, this is not what they, too, would want, I am sure!
[Above: Then U.S. President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, former Presidents Bush and Clinton, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, paying their respects to John Paul II lying in state at St. Peter's Basilica.]
How would you pay tribute to Pope John Paul II in a few words?
BP. CAMILLO: Pope John Paul II lived his motto “Totus Tuus!” faithfully and devoutly till the end of his days. He was a model Christian who witnessed perfectly through word and example. His life was and always will be a shining light to the whole world!