COLUMBIA — Msgr. Charles Rowland has had the joy of meeting Pope John Paul II on several occasions.
When he came to Columbia in 1987, Msgr. Rowland was the vicar general of the Diocese of Charleston under Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler. He remembers standing with the pope at the University of South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 11. Waiting for the event to begin, Pope John Paul II and Msgr. Rowland had a humorous exchange.
“He asked me what I did, and I told him that if he asked Bishop Unterkoefler, the answer would be ‘nothing,’ ” recalled Msgr. Rowland.
A couple of years later, during the bishop’s “ad limina” visit, Msgr. Rowland was given 30 minutes with the pope to discuss the Diocese of Charleston.
“After our talk, he invited me to lunch,” the priest said. “At the table two archbishops were trying to talk about their dioceses, but the pope kept on turning the conversation back to Columbia, the USC Horseshoe, and the young people of South Carolina.”
The Holy Father said that being able to have all the major religious leaders of the United States come together in Columbia was something that could not have been done in Europe.
“The Holy Father showed me that a priest can serve in any capacity if he understands the beauty of God’s creation and recognizes the dignity that each person has as a child of God,” Msgr. Rowland said. “For the world, he was the chief peacemaker and reconciler. He recognized that we, the church, must also say that we are sorry.”
The pope gave a message to all priests that the struggles of the vocations may be difficult, but the rewards are great, according to Msgr. Rowland.
The pastor, who has recovered from some of his own medical problems, was inspired by the fact that every time the pope had a physical setback, he would bounce back. Msgr. Rowland noticed that he bounced back more quickly when he was given the opportunity to be with the young. Pope John Paul II knew the future of the church rested in their hands, and he would be rejuvenated by them.
“His death has been difficult for me personally, because 26 years of my priesthood was under his supervision,” Msgr. Rowland reflected.
He sees the Holy Father now saying to all, “I have taught you, now go and teach the world.”
Hasham Koury was on the parish council of St. Peter Church at the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the area.
“When the pope was leaving the church, I stopped him and I said I had something I had to tell him, and he actually stopped,” Koury recalled.
Koury, whose grandfather was Lebanese, felt fortunate to speak with the pope. “I told him about my concerns about Lebanon and asked him to pray for the people there,” he remembered. “He said, ‘We should pray together.’ ”
The Holy Father placed both of his hands on Koury’s shoulders, and they prayed for the war-torn country. The pope then made the sign of the cross on his forehead with his thumb.
Barbara Nichols was chair of the parish council at St. Peter Church at that time. She was not raised Catholic, so she did not fully understand the hype about the visit.
“I really did not know what to expect,” she said. “Why he stopped, I don’t know, but he stopped and gave me a blessing. He looked me straight in the eye. It was something I will never forget. For the brief time you are with him, it is like you are the only ones in the room. He is a living, walking and talking example of what we are called to be. There was something about him that was riveting.”
When Pope John Paul II said Mass in Columbia, Oratorian Father Joseph Wahl was the master of ceremonies. He also met with the Holy Father in 2000 for an Oratory gathering while he was provost. Father Wahl told the pope he had seen him in 1987, and the Holy Father had fond memories of the trip.
“He gave me a blessing, and I will always cherish that moment,” he said. “He showed us not to just be concerned with our issues but the issues of the world. In his final years, he showed us how to bear suffering and showed us how to die. He never avoided the camera.”
Madeline McMillion, principal of St. Peter School, appreciated the pontiff’s commitment to the young people and hopes that the new pope will carry on that legacy.
“The potential for our world to grow into a better world is there, and he was the impetus for that growth,” she said. “I know in my heart that he will be watching over the conclave.”
The Rev. James R. Crumley Jr. was presiding bishop of the former Lutheran Church in America and one of the great pioneers in the Christian ecumenical movement. He had a special friendship with the Holy Father. As the chair of an ecumenical commission of Lutheran theologians working to improve relations with the Catholic Church, Bishop Crumley was invited to a private meeting with the pope. He went to Rome to discuss advances in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic dialogues. He was apprehensive, wondering if it would be a friendly encounter or unpleasant, but his concerns vanished when he met Pope John Paul II.
Taking the bishop’s hand into both of his hands, the Holy Father enthusiastically thanked him for the visit. Then he called for the bishop’s wife, who was in the waiting room.
“He asked us if I had any children and when I said that we did, he took my wife’s and my hands and said, ‘we must pray for them,’ ” Crumley recalled.
This act of kindness made a lasting impression on the retired bishop.
“He was not only a brother in Christ, but was much more to me,” he said. “He never treated any of us like inferiors. He walked side by side with me and was always warm.”
Bishop Crumley recalled discussing particular issues of the dialogue which formed the premise for the historical agreement between the two churches on salvation. The pope seemed to be anxious to heal and find a way through the divisions, he said.
The bishop befriended Cardinal Keeler, from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, head of ecumenical relations for U.S. Catholics.
“Cardinal Keeler mentioned that the pope wanted to come to the United States on an ecumenical visit and wanted to go to a place where Catholics were in the minority but had good relations with other faiths,” Bishop Crumley said. “I suggested Columbia, South Carolina, offering the Lutheran Theological Seminary as a place where leaders of all faiths could meet.”
From that conversation, the historical trip evolved.
“He was very much a man of prayer. Every meeting, whether private or public, he wanted to end it in prayer,” said Crumley. “I will miss him very much.”