Pontiff is remembered for kindness, impact

Pope John Paul II reached people of many faiths, backgrounds


Staff Writer

When Rabbi Eugene Wernick met Pope John Paul II about 10 years ago, he was treated as an equal. On Saturday, Wernick had the opportunity to return the favor.

Wernick, of Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge, led his congregants in a prayer for the Catholic leader Saturday morning.

“It was a prayer that God should grant him peace,” Wernick said. “And that God should grant him a recovery from illness to either the peace of God or the health of a human being.”

Pope John Paul II died later that day at the age of 84, but not before sharing his humility and kindness with Wernick and countless others.

“He was never condescending,” Wernick said. “That was the greatness of the man, that he was never condescending to another human being. And I think that’s what impressed a lot of people, that he made sure that everybody felt that they were in the image of God.”

The pope, born Karol Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland, lost his mother, father and brother by the time he was 20 years old.

He became pastor at St. Florian Parish in Krakow in 1949, then became the youngest bishop in Poland’s history in 1958 when he was named an auxiliary bishop of Krakow at age 38.

By that time he had already written several books on ethics as well as poetry and plays.

In 1964 he was named archbishop of Krakow, where he met Stanley Jarosz, now the pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Helmetta.

“He was very normal and a very humble bishop,” Jarosz said. He added that the pope, then known as Archbishop Wojtyla, always made the time and effort to talk to people and make them feel important.

“He recognized every human being,” Jarosz said. “Every human being — small, big, seminarian or priest — for him was a human being. And for each one he had a beautiful, humble word, and all the time was ready to shake their hands and smile. That’s what I remember.”

Wojtyla was elected pope on Oct. 16, 1978, becoming the church’s first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years.

“And I would say that one was impressed by his humanity, his gentleness, his interest in promoting peace and goodwill among various religious faiths, and his sense of humor and humanity most of all,” Wernick said.

He said the pope made unprecedented efforts to promote goodwill between the world’s Catholic and Jewish communities.

He was the first pope, Wernick said, to fully acknowledge the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust, and the first pope to visit the synagogue in Rome. During a trip to Israel, he became the first pope to meet with Israel’s two chief rabbis as well.

“He established a new wave of Catholic-Jewish appreciation and friendship, which hitherto had never been equaled,” Wernick said.

In the mid-1990s, more than 450 musicians from Newark, Trenton, Camden, Metuchen and South River performed for the pope at a musical ministry.

John Solar, then with the Corpus Christi Bells Choir in South River, participated in the event.

“The man was great; he had an aura about him,” Solar said.

He said the fact that the pope spoke 14 languages was a testament to his devotion to connecting with people all over the world.

“He globally communicated,” Solar said. “He truly was a vicar of God on earth.”

With that Mass, offered at Giants Stadium, the pontiff became the first pope to visit New Jersey.

In a statement released after the pope’s death on Saturday, the Most Rev. Paul Bootkoski, bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, said that Mass, as well as the pope’s myriad contributions to society, will never be forgotten.

“I believe it is not an exaggeration to say that the death of Pope John Paul II brings to a close one of the most remarkable and consequential chapters in the long history of the Catholic Church,” the statement read.

Bootkoski mentioned the pope’s outspoken defense of human dignity, his world travels in the name of peace, his role in the downfall of soviet tyranny, and his support of the elderly and disabled.

“While Catholics will miss the example of Pope John Paul II’s deep faith, the clarity of his teaching and his ability to connect with people of every walk of life, especially young people, we take comfort in the well-founded hope that he now sees face to face the Lord he served so faithfully and so well,” Bootkoski said.

Wernick said he felt the pope faced his illness with bravery and strength of spirit, and continued to pursue peace as long as he was able to.