What is the source of John Paul's strength and charisma? Contemplative prayer and the Mass, says the man who was his private secretary from 1988 to 1996

by Antonio Gaspari

John Paul II's emotional impact on those around him can be profound. Those who meet with him or listen to his words often are deeply moved, even breaking into tears. This was apparent during his recent pastoral visit to France. It was apparent in Denver, Colorado, in 1993, for World Youth Day. It was apparent in Manila in January 1995 when 5 million people came to his open-air Mass. When the Pope appears in public, crowds of thousands of every race and creed wait hours, even days, to see him, to listen to his counsel, or to participate in a liturgy he celebrates. This phenomenon is repeated on a regular basis in Rome, where John Paul II holds a weekly general audience for Catholic faithful from all over the world. What is the secret of his charisma?

This Pope has suffered much. Besides one attempt on his life and several serious operations, John Paul II has waged major spiritual battles. He has struggled to defend Catholic teachings and moral principles in a secularized world, fiercely condemned this century's fratricidal wars, and spoken against injustice and intolerance. Yet these struggles have not exhausted him. Where does he find his spiritual vigor?

We decided to ask someone who should know: Monsignor Vincent Tran Ngoc Thu, John Paul's personal secretary for more than eight years. Tran Ngoc Thu has served the Vatican since 1941. For 19 years he was Secretary of the Vatican's Apostolic Delegation to Vietnam. He then served 22 years in the Holy See's Secretariat of State, then was chosen to be Papal Secretary in January 1988. He retired from this post in February 1996.

"The foundation of this Pope's spiritual life, in my opinion, is the Mass," Monsignor Tran Ngoc Thu told Inside the Vatican. "In his entire life he has never missed a daily Mass, even when he was sick. Whenever he is hospitalized in Rome's Gemelli Clinic, he has his own small private altar installed beside his sick bed. A priest comes to celebrate the liturgy, and the Pope, lying in bed in his vestments, surrounded by doctors, nurses, and visitors, assists as concelebrant. The Pope speaks the words of Consecration and gives the final Blessing."

John Paul II has always made the celebration of the Mass the central event of each of his pastoral visits to 120 Italian dioceses and 74 foreign countries. He insists on the Mass as the most important experience for all believers.

When and where does the Holy Father celebrate Mass?

MONSIGNOR TRAN NGOC THU: The Holy Father rises every day at 5:30 AM, one hour earlier than his secretaries. He goes to his private chapel to prepare himself in prayer for the day's activities. One half hour before Mass, he gives directions to the sisters of the Papal Household. He thinks of everything - flowers for the altar, special remembrances. The papal secretaries arrange the daily Mass-book. When others arrive, they find the Holy Father already kneeling in prayer.

How does the Pope pray?

TRAN NGOC THU: To be present while the Holy Father is praying and saying daily Mass is a unique experience. He prays passionately, his eyes closed, with frequent invocations, such as: "Oh, my Lord! Oh, my God!" He often passes his hand over his forehead. His devotion is truly impassioned. The Pope takes seriously all those who write to him requesting special intentions. It is the responsibility of the papal secretaries and one other sister to examine, list and organize the petitions. We place photocopies of these before the Pope as he kneels at daily Mass, and he includes them in his prayers. The intentions may be for the gravely ill, or for those who have had accidents or other troubles. One day we received a letter from an American mother whose 17-year old son was in coma after a diving accident. The Pope also remembers the local churches and the bishops. He prays for the living and for the dead. He prays intently, stopping after every remembrance, eyes tightly closed, immersed in contemplation. Sometimes when he opens his eyes, his prayer has been so profound, that he no longer recalls at what point the liturgy has arrived. His abandonment to prayer is total, a kind of ecstasy.

What was John Paul II's reaction to the definitive break with Bishop Marcel Lefebvre?

TAN NGOC THU: The Pope was terribly grieved that he had not been able to mend the rupture and keep Lefebvre within the Catholic Church. Once at a private dinner with the Pope, a bishop tried to console him by saying: "Your Holiness should not worry; schisms have always been part of Church history; this also will pass." The Holy Father responded: "I have done all that a human could possibly do; it is now up to the Madonna and the Lord."

Is it true that the Pope is very emotional?

TRAN NGOC THU: John Paul II takes everything to heart. He is a very sensitive person. I have often seen tears fall from his eyes. I have observed him deeply moved by news of Catholic martyrs or murdered missionaries, but also in less dramatic circumstances. In 1980 (I was not yet Papal Secretary), I entered the papal chambers towards the end of my Vietnamese bishop's audience with the Pope. I heard my bishop ask: "Holy Father, please pray for me and for my work as bishop, for my priests, and for the faithful of the Vietnamese Church." At the conclusion of the audience, my bishop was weeping, and the Pope was also wiping tears from his eyes. About a month ago, as the Pope was helped into his car after visiting a Roman parish, I noticed that his eyes were red from crying. He tried very hard, however, to keep his feelings hidden from us. Yes, the Pope is emotional.

Whom does the Pope address when he prays?

TRAN NGOC THU: The Pope is profoundly devoted to the Holy Eucharist, to the Virgin Mary and to St. Peter. I was always moved, even after many years, to find the Pope praying in his chambers. He enters his chapel and kneels down on the ground rather than on his kneeling-stool. Sometimes he supports himself with both arms and his head upon the altar. He takes this position to show his total, filial faith in the Lord. I have often found him praying in that position.

John Paul II seems to have great compassion for the sufferings of others, but how does he react to his own physical suffering?

TRAN NGOC THU: John Paul II offers this suffering for the good of the Church. This Pope is strong; he approaches physical suffering with a contemplative attitude; he bears his physical pain as an act of positive acceptance. When he left Gemelli Hospital this October, he jokingly remarked to the cardinals and prelates waiting for him at the Vatican gates: "You see, I'm still in one piece!" John Paul II has a great sense of humor and a quick wit; he never avoids direct or unpleasant questions. His popularity is also due to this direct approach. People approach him without timidity. Even small children love him and speak with him freely.

Please comment on John Paul II's great devotion to Mary.

TRAN NGOC THU: It is true, he has a special devotion to the Virgin Mary. Wojtyla (the Pope) wrote his doctoral thesis on St. John of the Cross. He studied the writings of Louis M. Grignon de Monfort (from whom he took his bishop's motto "Totus Tuus"), St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Bernard, all "Marian" saints who deeply influenced his thought and faith. Once, around 11:30 AM, we realized that the Holy Father had not left for his 11:00 audiences. We found him in the hall, gazing intently, with his hands crossed on his chest, at an image of the Madonna on the wall. At that moment he seemed a little child gazing lovingly at his mother. Another time, around 6:30 PM on an extremely cold December evening, we received a telephone call from an important person in a foreign government. We always requested 20 minutes for the Poe to return a call; but this time we looked everywhere and could not locate him. In desperation, I went up to the outside terrace and found him, kneeling before a small altar with an image of the Madonna of Fatima, her head covered in a black shawl. I told him: "Your Holiness, there is an extremely important call for you." The Pope continued to pray - in the cold and wind. These moments, when the Pope has a strong need for prayer, are not infrequent. Furthermore, I have seen that when he writes encyclicals or sermons, there is always a small invocation to the Mother of God in one of the margins.

The Pope is also devoted to St. Peter?

TRAN NGOC THU: The Pope prays through St. Peter each time he travels abroad and each time he returns. He kneels before St. Peter's relics in the Basilica, beside his private altar.

Does the Pope go to Confession?

TRAN NGOC THU: Yes, the Pope confesses every week. The Pope's confessor is an elderly Polish monsignor who comes on Saturdays, or if the Pope is abroad, the following Friday. John Paul II is very rigorous concerning his spiritual duties. He makes the Stations of the Cross once a week, fasts on the appointed days, and recites the Rosary daily. During the annual Curia retreat, he listens to the Meditations and takes notes on every sermon.

Is the Pope a good listener? Does he read a lot?

TRAN NGOC THU: He dedicates a full hour every day to his personal reading. He reads the last hour before he goes to bed, that is, from 10:00 to 11:00 PM. He reads the books or articles he has set aside during the day. This Pope is, indeed, a good listener. Every Tuesday he invites five or six professors in different fields - theology, philosophy, sociology, politics, culture or science. For an hour and a half, from 12:00 to 1:30 PM, the experts (who are expected to be well prepared) speak, then proceed to lunch with the Pope. During his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, the Holy Father devotes even more time to such intellectual encounters. Each summer he invites a total of 15 experts from different fields to be his guests for the entire season. Thus, at different times of the morning, afternoon, and evening, and at meals, he can discuss with them at his leisure and be informed of the latest developments, in physics, for instance, or nuclear weapons - or even unidentified flying objects.

How does the Holy Father treat those who work under him?

TRAN NGOC THU: He is very sensitive towards others' feelings and is always very respectful. To give an idea of this, I should mention that the Holy Father has two telephones, one on his office desk and one in his bedroom, in order to contact us for any necessity. Nevertheless, during the entire eight years in which I have worked as John Paul II's private secretary, he never once called me. If he needed something, he came to me in person. He often came to our offices just to ask for paper or pencils. He never raised his voice. We never experienced an outburst of bad temper. And he always asks sincerely how we are. He is a very paternal Pope.

From Zenit.org – Pope Focuses on Psalms as Inspiration for Prayer

VATICAN CITY, MAR. 28, 2001 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II today began a catechetical series on prayer, proposing the Psalms as a key means of inspiration.

He stated his objective: that the Psalter, as the Psalms are also called, should be a key instrument in the spiritual life of all Christians, as well as priests and religious.

After noting their literary beauty and psychological insight, the Holy Father focused on the Psalms' religious meaning, "showing how these, although written so many centuries ago by Hebrew believers, can be assumed in the prayer of Christ's disciples."

Quoting theologians of the first centuries, the Pope said the key to understanding the prayers is this: "The Psalms speak of Christ." Moreover, "the risen Jesus applied the Psalms to himself when he said to the disciples that it is necessary 'that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled,'" he said.

As did the Fathers of the Church, John Paul II affirmed that "in the Psalms there is either reference to Christ, or Christ speaks directly. In saying this, they were not only thinking of the individual person of Jesus, but the total Christ, made up of Christ, the head, and his members."

He continued: "In this way, the possibility arises for the Christian to read the Psalter in light of the whole mystery of Christ. From this view, precisely, the ecclesial dimension also emerges, which is seen especially in the choral singing of the Psalms."

This was why the Psalms were assumed as a method of prayer by the early Christians. In fact, the Pope recalled, at a time when heresies were shaking the faith of Christian communities, some saints, such as Athanasius, dedicated their life to teaching the Psalter as a means to remain united to the roots of the faith.

"The Book of Psalms remains the ideal source of Christian prayer, and the Church of the new millennium will continue to be inspired by it," he concluded.

Glory be to Jesus Christ,
--Zeitun-eg.org (Our Lady of Zeitun Online)
"Whatsoever He shall say to you, do ye." (The Blessed Holy Virgin Mary - Jn 2:5)
"Let us disappear that God may be manifested in His glory." (First papal epistle of Pope St. Kyrillos VI of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria)