“As if one's own father were going home”

Fifteen years ago, John Paul II died. The auxiliary bishop of Cologne, Dominikus Schwaderlapp, was influenced by the former pope in his youth and as a young adult: "In a certain way, it was as if one's own father were going home."

Interviewer: Is there a very personal event or memory of an encounter that comes to mind when you think of John Paul II?. think?

Auxiliary Bishop Dr. Dominikus Schwaderlapp (Canon and Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Cologne): Yes, the first impressive encounter with him was his visit to Cologne on the 15th of December. November 1980. It was a terrible day: rain, storm, cold and the holy mass at Butzweilerhof. Back then, as a 13-year-old, I also went there on a bus from Ransbach-Baumbach in the Westerwald, where I come from.

And I still have his voice in my ear. His homily was about marriage and family and he said that one cannot live only on trial, one cannot accept a person only on trial and time. That was the first impressive encounter. I was actually from then on always very enthusiastic. I also believe that he helped shape my vocational journey.

Interviewer: Later, toward the end of his pontificate, you were vicar general to the archbishop of Cologne. This happened during the preparation of the World Youth Day. Did you have anything to do with him then??
Schwaderlapp: During that time I actually had fewer contacts. I have to put this into perspective anyway: It may seem as if I am now a personal acquaintance or even friend of John Paul II. had been. I met him a few times, but those were selective events.

Especially during my time as secretary to Cardinal Meisner, I was with him several times, I was able to celebrate Mass in his private chapel. After that there was also every now and then a short meeting. Until then, when I was allowed to present him with my doctorate, which I wrote on his teaching on marriage and the family. That was certainly a special highlight for me.

Interviewer: To many is the work of John Paul II. It remained in your mind just like that time 15 years ago, the public suffering, the dying in public. You worked closely with Cardinal Meisner at that time. How did you experience this time?

Schwaderlapp: It was amazing! When I think of my childhood and youth and also afterwards, especially in Germany there were always very heated discussions about him. He was acclaimed all over the world, but in Germany there was a lot of discussion about him. Later, when he became ill and the more he entered this phase of suffering in his life, the more he was accepted and embraced in Germany. That was a long suffering, at the latest since 2000 it was really very visible.

This wordless message was already something very, very forceful at that time: That he accepted the suffering and that he bore it and that he became a witness that even a person with suffering, an old and sick person is a person with dignity and charisma who can make a difference.

We were of course anxious about World Youth Day. He initiated the World Youth Day to come to Cologne. Can he himself come at all? Cardinal Meisner, who was really friends with him, was with him more often. And it became clear that this would no longer be possible. It was already difficult to accept that.

I must say that when he was elected Pope I was eleven years old, when he died I was 37 years old. So the formative years of my life as a teenager and young adult were influenced by him. When he died 15 years ago, it was in a certain way as if your own father was going home.

Interviewer: At the moment we are also in a time when there is a lot of talk about illness and suffering. Almost 40.000 deaths worldwide due to the coronavirus. There is hardly anyone who is not at least affected by the exit restrictions. If we look back on this time of public suffering, of public illness, can we learn something from it for ourselves today??

Schwaderlapp: Yes. Is John Paul II. not a witness of faith and belief in the resurrection? A witness that death is not the end?

I believe that some – panic – fears of illness have to do with the fact that many have lost this hope, this belief that we are actually on our way to heaven, where a glorious life awaits us. A life like we cannot imagine on earth. If this is lacking and we have established ourselves here in such a way that this life on earth must be paradise, then such a coronavirus crisis is something that is completely contrary to this.

John Paul II. stands against it as a person: Yes, life is valuable, it is to be respected. A dignity, even in illness. But it is completed only in heaven. And we can look forward to that!

Interviewer: One could get the impression that we have a small renaissance in the memory of John Paul II. There are efforts to declare him the patron saint of Europe or to examine his parents for beatification. How do you find such ideas?
Schwaderlapp: To make him the patron saint of Europe, I think, is almost obvious. He expanded the patron saints of Europe: It used to be just St. Benedict, then Catherine of Siena, Edith Stein and still others came along.

He has added to the crown of patrons of Europe and he is an authoritative figure who helped to bring down the Berlin Wall – even Gorbachev has said so. Without him this would not have been conceivable. In his spiritual way, without being revolutionary except for his revolutionary faith, he helped to unify Europe in the East and the West.

There is really no better patron saint for Europe! De facto he already is, one should declare him now to it.

Interviewer: What does that actually do to you personally as a bishop, as a priest, as a Catholic, that you know I had something to do with a saint??
Schwaderlapp: It moves me very much! I am still moved not only by the few personal memories of him. I think, for example, of how he celebrated Mass, normally, without a sermon, in his chapel. This has moved not only me, but many people who have also experienced it.

It still leaves its mark on me now. I take him myself as my personal patron saint for my episcopal ministry. But precisely his message with regard to marriage and family, sexuality, to the importance and dignity of the body, is also a message that is more current than ever. He actually helped us to rediscover and live the wonderful dignity of the body and also of sexuality.

I believe he continues to have much to say to us – and there he is, in part, still an untapped treasure.

The interview was conducted by Renardo Schlegelmilch.

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