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The thousands who flocked to Denver were rapturous.
Me, I was mostly annoyed.
Pope John Paul II had swooped into our smoggy city and brought with him tidings of joy for the youth of the world. He also — perhaps rightly, after the 1981 attempt on his life — brought a hyper- vigilant and imaginative security detail that saw in my rusted fire escape a potential sniper’s nest. It seems the pope, when looking for digs to inhabit during the 1993 World Youth Day celebrations, did just as I had done months earlier — decided the red brick charm a stone’s throw from the capitol outweighed the accompanying view of junkies stumbling over from Colfax Avenue. For more than a week, we were neighbors, him in the apartment building behind mine and me un- able to take out the trash lest one of his snipers mistake me for an assassin.
I was annoyed, but I was also in awe.
Growing up Catholic, I saw images of the pope everywhere. I close my eyes and envision the calendar that hung on the landing to my grandmother’s basement — him in profile, red cape, hand raised in blessing. He was larger than life, real but surreal, someone with a hotline to God yet for whom we prayed.
This celebrity was not lost on a young boy who, during a 1980 visit to the Vatican, went up to JPII to ask for his autograph (which he signed, “JPII”). My husband, raised Presbyterian, remembers thinking, “I don’t know who this pope guy is, but he must be famous — look at the house he lives in.” When he and his family returned to Dayton — and to UD, where his parents worked — the Flyer News ran a photo of the family palling with the pontiff.
Those who hear my husband, Kevin Anderson ’93, tell the story sometimes have the unconscious reaction of reaching out to touch him. It’s a response to the holy that I also witnessed on campus when Pope Francis was elected last March. In times of excitement and anticipation, as well as fear and sorrow, we seek a physical closeness to fill in the gaps of what we cannot articulate. Campus gathered around streaming coverage of the pomp at the papal palace to the point of nearly overwhelming campus band- width. We sought out students with Argentinian ties and those studying abroad in Rome. Each of us was drawn to the event by something different — the process or pageantry or potential — but the enthusiasm was interdenominational and infectious. And, as we do so much on this campus, we celebrated it in community.
Back in Denver all those years ago, I shook off my annoyance, walked into the parking lot separating our buildings and looked up. There was JPII taking a rooftop stroll. I had no words to describe what I felt but, grabbing Kevin’s hand, I knew I was close enough.