I reverted to Catholicism in the fall of 1994, and Pope John Paul II had an immediate effect on my newly-kindled faith. His writings and more importantly his witness were and remained an inspiration and source of wisdom to me... like so many others, I think his canonization will not be far off, nor will the attachment of "the Great" to his name be far away.
The first time I got to see him in person was in November of 1996, when I journeyed from Gaming, Austria to Rome with the rest of that semester's FUS Gaming students. We were present at the Wednesday audience (held inside the Paul VI audience hall because of the weather), and John Paul's appearance was electrifying. Our group (about 100 students) immediately began chanting "John Paul II, we love you, John Paul II, we love you!" over and over. When the time came for the Holy Father to greet the pilgrims in each of the major languages, the monsignor for the english-speaking pilgrims welcomed "the students and staff from Franciscan University of Steubenville." We immediately stood up and began the chant again; at one point, the monsignor tried to continue on to the next group, but we didn't let him... we continued to chant/yell, until the Holy Father gestured to us.
Then, the Holy Father himself welcomed the pilgrims in each of the major languages. In english, he said, "I would like to welcome the english-speaking pilgrims who have come to the city of Peter and Paul" (or something to that effect), and then -- in what was an obvious ad-lib -- he looked up from the text and added, "especially the students from Steubenville." I still get chills thinking about it! Of course, we immediately stood up and just cheered (we were to overcome to yell something intelligible). That was one of the most exciting moments in my life.
Fast-forward one year to the late fall of 1997. I'm now living and studying in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum). I've had the chance to see the Holy Father on numerous occasions of course (Wednesday audiences and Sunday Angeluses). But then...
Early in December each year, the pope has a mass for all the university students in Rome. So I got a ticket from the Ange's office, and got to St. Peter's early enough to get an aisle seat. At the beginning of mass, the Holy Father processed in from the back, and passed within about four feet of me! I was very excited. However...
After the Mass, John Paul came down the aisle, zig-zagging from side to side, shaking people's hands. And when he zigged, I was there! I got to shake his hand, and look into his warm-yet-steely blue eyes! I think I was on a high for about four hours! I made a bunch of (expensive) phone calls back to the States to tell people about it.
December of 1999, though, was the pinnacle. My wife and I were married that summer, and we knew about the papal blessing for newly-weds (first year of marriage). So on December 15th, 1999, at the end of the Wednesday audience, my wife and I got to meet John Paul II personally, and shake his hand. I told him that we were graduates of Steubenville (he nodded approvingly), and asked for his blessing, which he gave us by the sign of the cross and a hearty "God bless you!" That moment is, of course, immortalized on what we call our "Pope Wall" in our living room, due to the number of pictures we have of JPII (and will of future popes as well).
I truly believe that I and we have been blessed to have this man as our pontiff for 26 wonderful years, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunities -- no matter how quick -- I had to meet him personally.
John Paul II has returned to the house of the Father... rest in peace.