St. John Paul II greets the faithful who filled Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe during his apostolic visit to the Phoenix Diocese Sept. 14, 1987. (CATHOLIC SUN file photo)
JPII Visit 30th anniversary Mass

When: Noon, Sept. 14

Where: St. Mary’s Basilica, 231 N. Third St.

Mass and light reception with photo viewing of St. John Paul II’s visit to the Diocese of Phoenix 30 years ago.

A single kneeler, commemorative statue, church balcony, two plaques and a giant cross planted in front of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral remain among the publicly tangible reminders of the saint who traipsed the Valley during a daylong visit 30 years ago.

The faithful who followed their heart — and the crowds — to glimpse, if not meet, then Pope John Paul II in Phoenix and Tempe Sept. 14, 1987 have more intimate memories. They had the chance to encounter Christ’s vicar on Earth at seven stops plus a densely-lined motorcade.

Chris Wilson remembers the day with great clarity. It all came flowing back this summer after ordering a copy of St. John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic letter on the Rosary. He remembered seeing the author in what is now the Phoenix Convention Center. That’s where the highly-traveled pope addressed Catholic health care leaders, including his in-laws.

“I was my mother-in-law’s chauffeur that day,” said Wilson, who wasn’t in the medical profession or even a full-fledged Catholic at the time.

His father-in-law, Earl Baker, who later opened the medical clinic at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, wanted to quickly return to making his rounds at the hospital. Wilson’s wife stayed home with their two children.

Wilson remembers sitting beside his mother-in-law Joan as the pope listened intently to the people speaking. The pope also emphasized “the value of every one of God’s children and the special responsibility and gift” healthcare professionals have to deliver all care with dignity.

“Shortly before the speeches concluded, I whispered in Joan’s ear for her to come with me,” Wilson wrote in a 550-plus-word letter to The Catholic Sun. “After a brief questioning look, she followed me to a vacant space on the wall from where I thought we could make the short walk to the velvet ropes.”

He knew from articles that the pope loved to engage personally with the crowds. He thought it would be a nice gift for Joan, whose titles also included mother of six, former president of Arizona Right to Life and “all around nice lady.”

“I was a semi-practicing Protestant whom she prayed for,” he wrote.

Wilson’s calculations proved prophetic. He “clumsily” genuflected in front of the pope and kissed his ring. When the pope came to his mother-in-law, she held the hands of His Holiness in hers.

“He held her gaze with his bright blue eyes. He eventually pulled away and Joan and I just stood silent for a bit,” Wilson said.

Joan became Wilson’s RCIA sponsor a few years later. He credited that encounter, but more so, how much of his in-laws’ actions were formed by their faith for his conversion.

At the time, JPII was history’s most traveled pope. Wilson called him a true missionary and ended up following the pope’s example locally, getting heavily involved at St. Thomas the Apostle and Most Holy Trinity parishes. Earlier this year, Wilson and his wife, Nancy, completed the Missionary Disciples course at MHT.

“I wanted some additional tools to not just be of service to the whole community, but to my children as well,” he said.

The younger generation didn’t get to encounter JPII in their home diocese, but they can learn more about him through testimonies of those who did and the example the pope set for them. Organizers of a simple 30th anniversary celebration encourage the faithful to share their stories during a light reception following the regular noon Mass at St. Mary’s Basilica Sept. 14 with Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted as celebrant.

St. John Paul II prayed in the same space 30 years ago that day. His marked kneeler still remains.