Twenty or so years ago, a friend and I were visiting Rome, and—after a very late dinner—we walked through an almost entirely empty St. Peter’s Square. We stopped and looked up at the Apostolic Palace and were a bit overwhelmed at the thought that behind those windows was John Paul II. I asked my friend, “How is it that this old man from Poland knows me so well? I feel like whenever he speaks, he is speaking directly to me and that he is loving me, not in some vague or general way. But rather, that he knows me personally and loves me personally. How is it possible?”
I remember quite vividly, my friend paused for a few moments and said, “I think it is because he knows and loves Christ who is the true man. And because he knows and loves the one, true man, he is able to know and love each man.” There are few conversations in my life that I can recall two decades later, but that one remains with me.
There are so many things that could be said today about St. John Paul II on his feast day, but I want to communicate that which had the greatest impact upon my life. I grew up with a profound sense that the Pope was close to me, that he knew me, and that he loved me. And, I knew that this closeness, this knowledge, and this love was Jesus Christ being close to me, knowing me, and loving me through the Pope. There was an urgency in John Paul's voice, calling me—calling all of us—to Christ and to His way of life. Although two thousand years had passed since Christ had walked the earth, the pages of the Gospels were not relegated to the past. They were alive. They were happening now. Christ was still calling men and women to himself. He was calling them to true greatness. The Gospel was and is still new.
I am surprised that I recall a conversation from twenty years ago, but even more surprising is that a conversation with a fisherman two thousand years ago by the seaside still moves us so profoundly and so deeply.
"Simon, son of John." Jesus was close to him. Jesus knew him. Jesus loved him. Jesus addresses each of us by our name. We are not vague or distant to him. He knows his sheep by name. He calls each one by name.
“Do you love me?” Not just once, but three times Jesus puts this question to Simon, Son of John. This question is placed before us constantly. It causes us to pause. It can sting. Perhaps each time we answer it, we feel even more our own inadequacies, our own failures. We feel the weight of our past and the smallness of our efforts. And yet, Christ keeps asking. “Do you love me?” Each time he asks, he offers us hope. There is always the possibility to grow in our love for him. Each time he asks this question, he is providing us a new moment to begin again, to deepen our love for him, to once again go out into the deep. “Do you love me?”
“Lord, you know everything,” Peter says! Yes, the Lord knows our heart. He knows of what we are made. He knows our fears, our shame, and our littleness before him. And yet, he knows that—even if it be a weak, flickering, flame—we do love him.
“Feed my sheep.” Can we even begin to comprehend these words? The shepherd who knows his sheep by name, whose heart was moved with pity for them and for their plight, the shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, he now entrusts the care of these sheep to Simon, to John Paul, and to us. “Feed my sheep.” Be close to my sheep. Know my sheep. Love my sheep. Lay down your life for my sheep. Do we realize the extraordinary privilege it is that Christ, the Good Shepherd entrusts to us the flock that he loved so much that he died for them?
Dear brothers, today on the Feast of this great pastor of the Church, let us rededicate ourselves to Jesus Christ. Let us once again hear him intimately calling us by name. Let us—without fear—hear him saying, “Do you love me?” Do not be afraid to hear this question and to answer it. Let us open ourselves to him--all of our wounds and our sins—with serene confidence. “You know everything, Lord. You know me. You know that somewhere in the midst of all of these contradictions, I do love you.”
And then, let us hear once again the call, the invitation, the plea: Feed my sheep. Let us be men who feel intensely within ourselves the greatness and the urgency of the mission of the Redeemer of Man. Today, as the Good Shepherd feeds us with the Eucharist, let us ask through the intercession of John Paul, that we be men who are not afraid to open our hearts completely to Christ. Men who live life with our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ—the sole redeemer of the human race. Today, Jesus Christ is standing by our side. He is close to you. He knows you. He loves you.
Love Him. And, feed his sheep. Amen.