A privilege given to us by God

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Father Philip S. Majka was a young priest in 1969 when he was invited by a former seminary professor to serve as an escort for Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, as he toured Washington, D.C.

Father Majka, a native of New Britain, Conn., was one of only a few Catholic priests in the area who spoke Polish.

Cardinal Wojtyla came to the United States in September 1969 to say thank you to the American church for its kindness toward Poland. Father Majka met the cardinal at National Airport and proceeded to take him on a 24-hour whirlwind visit of the nation's capital.

The future pope stayed at the Hay-Adams Hotel, visited the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and celebrated Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, before having dinner at the Vatican nunciature.

The next day, the cardinal traveled to Baltimore before flying to Detroit.

"Fortunately, I had the monopoly of being the most active Polish priest in Washington at that time," said Father Majka, who now lives at St. Rose of Lima Priests Retirement Villa in Annandale. "He needed a contact."

Even though Cardinal Wojtyla had made quite an impact on the proceedings at the Second Vatican Council in Rome a few years before, Father Majka said there wasn't a feeling at that time that Cardinal Wojtyla was going to be pope.

"The Holy Father at that time was Paul VI," Father Majka said. "He was healthy, so there was no talk at that time about a new pope."

But the feeling was different in 1976, when Cardinal Wojtyla returned to the United States to attend the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia.

Father Majka recalled that while he and some others were having dinner with the cardinal at Gadsby's Tavern in Old Town Alexandria, "We said, 'This is the next Holy Father.'"

"We weren't playing politics or playing a game," he said. "It was like the Holy Spirit planting a thought in our minds that we were with the next Holy Father."

Father Majka said there were two occasions during the 1976 trip that made him think about the special nature of his Polish guest. The cardinal traveled from Philadelphia to Baltimore by bus and it was Father Majka's task to pick him up at the bus terminal and escort him around Baltimore. He visited the cathedral and the Polish parish for a reception. Father Majka then took him to Washington.

"The moment that he got out of the bus, he came to me and put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'You know, Majka, you've got a Polish heart.' That made me feel good."

Father Majka was the point man for the cardinal and the Polish bishops who were traveling with him.

"This was not a vacation for these cardinals and bishops," he said. Cardinal Wojtyla celebrated Mass again at the National Shrine and had dinner with Washington Cardinal William Baum. The group stayed at the old Carmelite Seminary in Washington.

The next day, they celebrated Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral. Then they went to Arlington Cemetery, where they visited a memorial to a Polish statesman, as well as President John F. Kennedy's grave.

Father Majka said he was approaching Cardinal Wojtyla from behind to tell him about the day's itinerary when he felt God tap him on the shoulder and say, "You are in the presence of someone special."

Bishop Thomas J. Welsh was bishop of Arlington at that time. His brother, Bill, was assistant director of the Library of Congress. Father Majka took the Polish bishops to the Library of Congress "where they acted like school boys, talking in the middle of the library. Bishop Welsh's brother came up to me and said, 'Father Majka, keep those bishops quiet.'"

Just two years after his second visit to Washington, Cardinal Wojtyla was elected pope Oct. 16, 1978.

"My two telephone lines were ringing off the hook," Father Majka recalled. "When the new Holy Father came out on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square, I knelt down in front of the television set and got his blessing. Then I took two good shots of Polish liquor to celebrate."

Father Majka made it a point to visit Rome and the Holy Father at least once a year from 1978 until 2004.

"All during that time, whenever I met him in Rome, the pope would say, 'Majka, Washington.'"

He was always impressed by the Holy Father's intense prayer life.

"There was one time he was so intensely at prayer at Castel Gandolfo (the pope's summer residence), for some reason he did not give out holy Communion. The pope was standing in front of the altar, looking at the tabernacle. I had the impression that he would gravitate into that tabernacle. He was in such union with God."

Father Majka will travel to Rome this week for the canonization ceremony. He won't be alone.

"Papa Wojtyla remembered a lot of names," he said. "There are thousands of us throughout the world who could say, 'I knew him, and he knew me.' There are thousands of us who received a rosary from him at the papal audiences.

"We are privileged by God in our lifetime to see the road to sainthood that was accomplished in nine years," he said. "We were privileged to live while he was alive. Many people in the world were privileged to experience his talks. It's our privilege given to us by God. It is our blessing that we saw the road toward sainthood.

"We knew a saint," Father Majka said. "We knew a person, the pope, a saint. It becomes a normal way of life. But we have to go and take that normal way of life and make it so for ourselves. We have to follow what he did."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014