Bishop, priest knew John Paul II

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    FLORIDA-Bishop Ryszard Karpinski and Father Joseph Tokarczyk sat at the dining room table in the rectory of St. Joseph's Church in Florida. Like any people who had just lost a loved one, the two men spoke about the man who led their church for the past 26 years. There were fond recollections, personal stories, funny ones, touching ones. There was sadness of Pope John Paul II's passing, but there was gratitude that he led the Catholic Church. Bishop Karpinski was originally assigned to the Vatican in 1971. He is responsible for Polish Catholics around the world. His travels are extensive — this was his 33rd trip outside of Poland in just two years. The bishop and Karol Wojtyla, who would later become Pope John Paul II, shared the same roots. So, too Father Joseph. He studied with Archbishop Wojtyla at the Catholic University of Lublin. He was a professor of ethics. And, Karpinski said, while the scholars appreciated the Pope's wisdom, it was the everyday people he could speak to best. "His personality was very special," Karpinski said. "He had a common language for people, especially with young people. He reached them." He also made an impression on both Karpinski and Tokarczyk. "He was a very humble man," said Tokarczyk. "I remember from our place in Poland, whenever the Cardinal was coming, he was always in front, always in the first place. "Not Wojtyla. When he came in , he was always at the end of the line. He let everyone else go first. He was always very humble." Karpinski remembered when the two were in Rome before Cardinal Wojtyla became pope. Karpinski's boss asked him to invite the Cardinal over to enjoy a meal. The Bishop took a long time to actually do it but he eventually invited him, along with a priest from his home diocese. Karpinski prepared potato pancakes. Later that year, Pope John Paul I died after a short time as pope. At the funeral, Karpinski and Wojtyla met again and discussed having potato pancakes together again. But Karpinski said they would put it off because of the pressing business ahead of choosing a new pope. He told Wojtyla he would be invited back for the potato pancakes, whether he wore a red hat or a white one. Only the pope wears a white cap. Of course, the Cardinals indeed chose Wojtyla to be pope. This made the date for potato pancakes a bit difficult to keep. In February, 1979, Karpinski got a phone call from the Pope's secretary. "This would be a good time for potato pancakes," she told him. Karpinski went over to the Pope's apartment and fixed them. "It was a very nice experience," Karpinski said. "It shows his character. He wanted to maintain the promise he made to me." Pope John Paul II came to the United States on several occasions, but it was one in 1976, the country's bicentennial year, that stands out in Karpinski's mind when the still-Cardinal Wojtyla came to speak. "He spoke in Philadelphia. I remember his speech in Philadelphia in 1976," said Karpinski. "He talked of hunger — the hunger for freedom, food, and God. He said ‘I come from a country where we don't enjoy freedom.' He spoke to the people." Tokarczyk spent several years on Staten Island before coming to St. Joseph's in Florida. Cardinal Wojtyla came to visit the Polish community there, including Father Joseph's "American mother," as he calls her, Cookie. "Both times Cookie cooked for him. He gave her a rosary," Tokarczyk said. A few years ago, a priest from Staten Island went to Rome and asked a friend at the Vatican to try and get him to see the Pope. When his friend went in and mentioned Staten Island, Tokarczyk said Pope John Paul II asked "How's Cookie?" Karpinski said the Pope had quite a sense of humor, too. It was never sarcastic or hurtful. When Karpinski thanked John Paul II for inviting him over for dinner, the Pope revealed his ulterior motive. "'I like to invite people,' he told me. ‘I can learn from them what is going on in the office, the church, and the world. But most importantly, when I have guests, the sisters prepare something better for dinner,'" Karpinski said with a laugh. With millions making their way to Rome for the Pope's funeral, Karpinski said he has never seen anything like it. But he is not surprised. "I participated in two funerals," he said. "One for Pope Paul VI and one for Pope John Paul I. They were nothing like this. He touched so many people. People loved him."