What do Oliver Twist, Annie, and the children from Les Miserables all have in common? The same with Snow White and Heidi. For that matter, also Batman and Spiderman and Superman. Orphans, one and all. Literature and cinema are filled to the brim with them. We love the stories about them because they, in their lives, live in the midst of our fear. It is a reality most all of us have to face eventually, whether we are 7 or 77, most of us face a life without parents. Some face that sad reality long before their parents breathe their last. And even more experience a similar angst when they reflect on not having biological descendants.
For each of us, in our hearts, fears the isolation of losing our story. We hold onto pictures, we hold onto family recipes, we hold onto those stories that are told Sunday after Sunday, family reunion after family union. It is where we find our identity that we fear losing it one and all. And to that fear Jesus today speaks those words “I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you . . . . You are in me, and I am in you” (see John 14:18-20). Much closer than Annie’s broken locket could ever be to her heart or Superman’s Krypton clothing could be to him, the Lord is in us and we in the Lord.
The 18th of May was the birthday of a great orphan known to one and all—Pope Saint John Paul II. You might know his mother died when he was just nine. His older brother, the promising young doctor, died when Karol Wojtyla (the future John Paul) was only twelve. And his beloved father, who inspired so much of his faith, died when Karol was in his college years. The man who was seen and photographed by more people than anyone else in history—the father, the papa to a billion Catholics worldwide, to the visible head of a worldwide family of faith—had no family.
When his mother died in his boyhood, we’re told that Karol turned to the Blessed Mother who we honor this month. “You must be my mother now,” he said to her. His relationship with God the Father was so inspired by his own father’s profound love and faith. He knew the reality beyond academic but with profundity the Lord’s words “I will be with you always” were beautiful because they were true.
Pope John Paul loved to receive the Eucharist. He also loved to simply spend time in the Lord’s Presence. It is said that, when he would make visits—especially there are records of him making visits to the U.S.—aids were assigned from the Vatican to stand by and distract him from the doors to a chapel in a residence where he would be staying because he had to stay on schedule. His heart was so in tune with the love of the Presence of the Lord that would come to him in the Eucharist that he would spot the door nine times out of ten and he would go in. They wouldn’t have bouncers at the door, they would let the Pope go in when he figured it out, and he would ruin the whole schedule. But he wanted to be with the Lord that wanted to be with him.
You see this realization that John Paul made was not a form of compensation. He wasn’t compensating for a lack of a biological father or a biological mother. He knew the profound reality that Jesus spoke of that all good fatherhood and all good motherhood find its source and perfection in the love of God. Jesus spoke these words not in abstraction. He knew that all of us would face them, would face this reality. Is there any wonder, since we all know that from the cross Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you abandoned Me?” (Matthew 27:46) We will feel abandoned. So many of us are feeling that longing.
And yet we can take solace that the same Holy Spirit that is promised—that same Holy Spirit that will descend upon the Church at Pentecost. That same Holy Spirit that inspired Philip to continue to preach the word in the Acts of the Apostles—in the midst of all the frustration and the challenges that they were facing—is with us as well. Go back, if you would, to that reading from the Acts of the Apostles (see Chapter 8), it sounds so good to see St. Philip achieving such greatness and spreading the faith. But first, you have to see that they are being dispersed. Persecution is under way. These are not easy days for Philip and the early Christians. And Peter, as well, speaks of a hope that each of us has in the gift of our faith. Be ready to give the reason for your hope, always ready. (1 Peter 3:15) People will wonder how can you have that spirit of joy about you these days? And the simple answer is that He is with us, that Paraclete that Advocate, literally means “the One Who walks with us.” He will not leave us orphans. He comes to be with us, to stay with us, so that we can stay in Him.