Fr. Jan Nowotnik is parish priest of Our Lady & St. Brigid Parish, Northfield Birmingham. He has been a priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham for nearly fifteen years. He studied at the English College in Valladolid and so has a love of things Spanish! He is the chaplain to the Birmingham Diocesan World Youth Day Pilgrimage.
Like so many of us I suppose, I remember exactly where I was when Pope Benedict became our beloved Holy Father. I was in the presbytery at St. Augustine’s, Meir, Stoke -on –Trent. From the first words that he spoke to us, telling us that he was “a simple, humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard.” one got the sense that this humble worker had got something very special to offer to the Church. Sitting now in the presbytery at St. Brigid’s Northfield, it is strange to think back to the moment of his election and what impact it would have on my own life.
Blessed John Paul II had been the only Pope I had ever really known, I was four years old when he was elected and having a Polish dad, you can only imagine how important it was to have a Polish Pope! It took time for me to get used to seeing Pope Benedict in his white cassock. I am a devoted follower of EWTN and all news, so never miss an opportunity to watch what the Pope is doing, from a Sunday Angelus address to a Mass celebrated in St. Peter’s Square. What struck me about Benedict is that he was truly humble and gracious! In those first few days and weeks he almost seemed a bit shocked that he was the Pope and was getting used how to behave in public, I’m sure he wasn’t but it seemed like that at times. That said, one could see more and more that this was who the man is, never seeking any publicity for himself, but in his words and actions leading us to the heart of Christ. This simple and humble worker was going to keep us close to the Lord.
Where he would make his impact with me was in some of his visits outside of Rome. I have been privileged to attend the World Youth Days in Sydney and Madrid with the pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Birmingham, and am looking forward to going to Rio this coming July! What struck me about him is his clear teaching, straightforward and always based on the Scriptures and Tradition. As a priest, he made me reflect on my own preaching style and I know that I preach more about the Scriptures these days, following his example.
Many have commented that he didn’t have the same rapport with the young people as John Paul II. Possibly not in the same way, how could he? We are all different! Those of us who were with him at the Vigil in Madrid cannot fail to remember that he stayed with us during the storm and spoke to us with a Father’s love on that night. When we all knelt down before the Blessed Sacrament at both the Sydney and Madrid Vigils, I can still feel now what I felt then, the power of the Lord’s presence among us and the successor of Peter leading us in prayer. These have to be amongst the most special moments of World Youth Day for me. I thank Pope Benedict for showing me once again how to be still in the Lord’s presence.
Thanks to my involvement in WYD I have met many wonderful young people who are ready to become the Lord’s disciples. They have enhanced my experience of the priesthood, and helped me to be a better priest. I attribute this to our beloved Holy Father. In quiet and simple ways he has inspired so many young people to follow the Lord. How wonderful was the encounter that he had with so many of our young people outside Westminster Cathedral during his visit to the UK. The media couldn’t believe it, they were almost stunned to silence, we weren’t because we knew just how much he loved us, and we wanted to show our love to him.
One other time in my life that I won’t forget is my involvement with the Papal Mass at Cofton Park. I was part of a huge team of people from many different backgrounds who helped to prepare for that liturgy. Knowing that we were preparing for the Pope and knowing his devotion to Cardinal Newman made us want to get everything right. It was a tough and busy three months for me, but how special were they!
On the day itself I was fortunate enough to witness at close hand the Pope as he began to process in for the Mass and I was struck by his recollected manner and his desire to want to enter prayerfully into the Mass even though there was so much going on around him. A lesson for all us priests I thought, and again it has made an impact on my priestly life. I will not forget his kindness to the altar servers and to those of us he met after the Mass, his gratitude for all the work that we had done and his appreciation for all our efforts. I felt privileged to have met him at the end of the Mass and I was struck by his true gentleness.
As I finish my reflection, I thank God for the gift that Pope Benedict has been to the Church. I thank God for the way in which the Holy Father has helped me to be a better priest and to try harder to work for the kingdom. I will miss this gentle worker in the Lord’s vineyard, but I know that he will continue to pray and serve and love the Church as he told us in his last Angelus address. I shed a little tear as it and heard him say in English:
Upon all of you I invoke God’s abundant blessings! Just before that he said: As we continue our Lenten journey towards Easter, may we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus the Redeemer, whose glory was revealed on the mount of the Transfiguration.
That said it all for me, Pope Benedict in his final days as Pope said what he had been saying throughout his Pontificate: Keep your eyes fixed on the Lord!