Pastor in Normal has special connection to Pope John Paul II

The 26-year papacy of Pope John Paul II no doubt influenced the faith lives and ministries of nearly every priest of the Diocese of Peoria. But only one can claim the unique bond of being ordained by the man who will be beatified on Sunday.

“It was a blessing,” said Msgr. Eric Powell, now pastor of Epiphany Parish in Normal, recalling the ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica on June 10, 1990.
Msgr. Powell, then a seminarian at North American College in Rome, was among 47 priests from 18 countries ordained that day by Pope John Paul II. He was one of only three from the U.S. in the group.

Four other seminarians from the diocese had been ordained in Peoria a few weeks earlier by then-Bishop John J. Myers. Himself an alumnus of the North American College, Bishop Myers had granted permission for Msgr. Powell to be ordained at the Vatican. And so on Trinity Sunday 1990, in a basilica filled with faithful Catholics from all over the world, Msgr. Powell was ordained by “the pope of my Christian awakening.”

The historic election of the charismatic Karol Wojtyla from Poland took place when young Eric Powell was 15, and the faith, teachings, and confidence of the joyful new pope “grabbed me.”

“I’ve always had a love for him,” said Msgr. Powell, who also described Pope John Paul II as a man of vitality, brilliance, and sensitivity who “never lost his confidence in God” even while experiencing history’s most violent and destructive century.

The ordination Mass would not be his last encounter with John Paul II.

That fall, Msgr. Powell returned to Rome to complete his licentiate in sacramental theology. Then, from 1994 to 1999 he was back at the Vatican, this time serving with the Congregation for Eastern Churches and earning a degree in canon law from Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. So in all, Msgr. Powell was in Rome for more than ten years of Pope John Paul II’s papacy.

“I used to dream he and I were friends and would walk at the papal palace and talk about things,” said Msgr. Powell. In reality, while he saw Pope John Paul a few times a year, there were few private moments beyond quick hellos.

“I’ve been to enough papal Masses and events, though, that I got plenty of rosaries, all of which I’ve given away,” he told The Catholic Post. At one encounter, he told Pope John Paul II “God bless you” in Polish. The pope gently slapped the young priest on the cheek and returned the Polish greeting and added in English “to you too.”

Msgr. Powell said Pope John Paul II’s teachings — including on the dignity of the human person and man’s need for Christ — remain vitally relevant today. From among the late pope’s many writings Msgr. Powell particularly recommended his first encyclical, called “Redeemer of Man,” which he described as “a clarion call of faith in our day.”

Msgr. Powell predicted the beatification ceremony Sunday will be an “overwhelming outpouring of simple devotion to a person who had profound influence. Many of us who came to maturity during his papacy will want to show love and respect.”

While Msgr. Powell won’t be present Sunday, he’ll show his own love, respect, and devotion at the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II after Christmas when he accompanies a parish group to Rome.

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