Every time I’m convinced the internet was invented by Satan, it comes up with something that proves how valuable it can be.
My latest experience came earlier this month when, bored by political brouhahas, I started looking up old schoolmates who had dropped out of my life long ago. While searching for someone else, I came upon a blog for alumni of a Detroit Catholic high school that many of my elementary school friends had attended. What blew me away was a post by Dennis, who wrote about serving Mass with Pope John Paul II while stationed in Rome as a Jesuit priest.
Dennis and I spent eight years as classmates at Christ the Good Shepherd School in Lincoln Park, a blue-collar suburb. We weren’t close friends but got along very well even though he was everything I wasn’t: mild-mannered, well-groomed and handsome. The last time I saw him was on a bus in Detroit in 1970, when he was selling encyclopedias door-to-door to put himself through the University of Michigan.
My pastor spent close to two decades working in Vatican City, so after Mass the following Sunday I asked him if he had ever run into Dennis. His eyes opened wide in surprise. He not only knew Dennis but added that he’s now living in a retirement home for Jesuits just about 20 minutes from my place.
I called the facility the next day and was put through to Dennis. After chatting about old times, I invited him out to dinner. What ensued was one of the most fascinating afternoons of my life.
After graduating from college, he taught at a Jesuit-run high school for two years. Inspired by the priests and believing he was called by God, he entered the seminary. His studies took him to Paris, where he entered the diaconate. In fact, he was still only a deacon when he served at a Mass with John Paul the first time.
Ordained in 1984 at the age of 33, he was assigned to the Vatican, where he ultimately spent eight years. (He took a year off to do biblical research and archaeology in Jerusalem.) He got to know the pope a bit – he would never claim they were buddies, but he twice managed to arrange private meetings with John Paul for his parents and younger sister, who had Down syndrome. The pontiff was especially taken with the cheerful and gracious young lady.
Of the many stories Dennis told, my favorite is about the time he served at a Mass with the pope, who customarily had a receiving line after a service. John Paul would greet each server with a handclasp, then move on to the eminences who were in attendance.
When John Paul got to Dennis, he said, “So how is the little one?” For the next five minutes, the powerful church leaders — including the head of the Jesuit order — cooled their heels while Dennis updated the pope on how his sister was doing.
What a life he’s had, living four years in Paris and eight in Rome. He met Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and struck up a friendship with Martin Sheen, for whom he served as an informal tour guide when the actor visited Rome. (They became close enough that Dennis spent the Christmas holidays with the Sheens the year his mother died.)
Unfortunately, Dennis’ adventures came to an end in the mid-1990s, when he suffered a massive heart attack that permanently impaired him. While he no longer could work overseas, he recovered enough to resume teaching at the school where he was first drawn to the Jesuits.
Dennis’ flesh may be weak today, but his spirit remains as strong as ever. That the internet enabled me to re-connect with a soul like Dennis gives it partial absolution for its many sins.