For Jenny Vlahutin, 1999 was a year of major events. In January, Pope John Paul II came to St. Louis for his first and only pastoral visit to the Rome of the West. Six months after, she married Peter.
Twenty years later, the Vlahutins, members of Holy Trinity Parish in St. Ann, still see the impact the Holy Father — now St. John Paul II — has had on their lives. Earlier this fall, the Vlahutins attended a potluck dinner at a park in Bridgeton, with more than 100 people who’ve been touched by his legacy, years after his historic trip to St. Louis.
His visit to St. Louis was part of a trip to North America that included a stop in Mexico City. It was his fourth trip to Mexico and seventh to the United States. The trip to St. Louis, arranged by then-St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali, a friend of the pope, highlighted the ties of unity and solidarity necessary for the “new evangelization” in the Americas, as it was written in the accounts of the visit 20 years ago.
Jenny Vlahutin attended the youth rally at the then-Kiel Center and the Mass at the then-Trans World Dome, where she held an umbrella sheltering the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion scattered around the dome. “I remember the weather being so nice — the Pink Sisters were praying for good weather,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘You go, God.’ What a beautiful miracle that was.”
More important than the recounting of the details, Jenny Vlahutin remembered the feeling of being in the Holy Father’s presence — both in St. Louis, and again in 2000, when she saw him in Rome for the Great Jubilee Year events.
“There’s a welling up in my heart,” she said. “His presence makes me cry. I’ve always felt a connection, as my grandpa was of Polish descent and looked a little like him. JPII was like my spiritual grandpa.”
As one of the most charismatic and traveled popes in recent history, St. John Paul II certainly had that effect on many people. In fact, the Vlahutins named their first-born John Paul, who is now 15. Born at 23 and a half weeks, their son was in the NICU for several months. They placed a holy card of John Paul II in his isolette, and many friends and family all over the country prayed for him. The Vlahutins also have three other children, as well as one in heaven, who was lost to miscarriage.
John Paul II, she said, made her proud to be a Catholic. “His Theology of the Body helped me to see sexuality as the beautiful gift that it is,” she said. “All of that affected my marriage and vocation as a mother. I see a serious responsibility of teaching them the truths of Theology of the Body, and John Paul II opened that door for me.”
As a child of the 1980s, Father Joe Post’s first exposure to a pope was St. John Paul II. After high school and a gap year working with refugees seeking asylum in southern Texas, he came back to St. Louis and enrolled in community college. That eventually led to him responding to a possible call to the priesthood. “After high school, I knew I was being called to something different,” he said.
Not long after he enrolled as a freshman at Cardinal Glennon College, plans were being made for John Paul II’s St. Louis visit. Seminarians were being chosen to participate in roles at the Mass and other papal events and, somehow, Father Post was tapped to carry the Holy Father’s crosier at the papal Mass at the Trans World Dome. The magnitude of that honor was not lost on him.
He and two other seminarians had the opportunity to meet him just prior to the Mass. “We were a bunch of goofball kids. We had no idea what we were doing,” he said. When he greeted the Holy Father prior to the Mass in a small holding room, “I felt like an ant next to him because of his presence,” Father Post recalled. “When I got to shake his hand, my insides were all excited. I felt like I was going to come out of my skin.”
Many priests of Father Post’s generation were inspired by the man of courage and humility. John Paul II was present to people in all walks of life, and in many situations, from his humble beginnings as a priest and throughout his papacy. He traveled to war-torn countries and brought about the conversion of many people in his native Poland. “The stories of his own life were what moved me the most,” said Father Post, now pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Union.
“He had a respect for theology and the truths of the Church, but also had the balance of pastoral applications,” Father Post continued. “He knew how to apply both as a servant and in humility. As a priest, I try to keep that in mind — there’s a fine line between the sacred and the practical.”
Greg Barker stood in an area closed off from the rest of the gymnasium. A large wooden cross was perched behind him, with candles surrounding it. It was a typical Wednesday night for members of the youth group at St. Joseph Parish in Manchester, where Barker has been a youth minister for the past 11 years.
Barker was checking in with the teens, who attended a Luke 18 retreat the prior weekend. Being in the trenches of youth ministry is where Barker has always wanted to be. He started as a youth minister in 1991 at St. Clare of Assisi in Ellisville. The parish was the first of what would become many parishes in the archdiocese to offer Life Teen.
By the late ‘90s, Barker became one of the first members of the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry, joining the staff in 1999. The staff was working overtime organizing activities for the papal visit; around the same time, then-director Father Bob Smoot agreed to have St. Louis host its first Steubenville youth conference in July of 1999. Barker initially worked out of his home planning the logistics for that conference.
It was an exciting time, when youth ministry in the archdiocese was transitioning from more than just social activities for teens into experiences that better help them develop their relationship with Christ and the Church. St. John Paul II’s visit helped to propel that movement, not only through major events such as Steubenville, but also via long-term programs such as Life Teen, Christpower, a youth trip to the March for Life, and Project Life — a weeklong service project for teens.
Barker attended the youth rally and the Mass during St. John Paul II’s visit. He still has photos of the visit in his office. He counts the Holy Father and St. Teresa of Calcutta as personal heroes, inspiring him to be a servant leader to the young people to whom he ministers.
“I felt like he fostered a leadership within myself, and I had a deeper conversion of who I wanted to be, and who I should be, and how to serve, how to recruit others to try this journey of youth ministry,” Barker said. “That’s what John Paul did for each of us — he anointed us … all the countless people who have been in the youth ministry movement. We sincerely recognize that we are on a journey. I’m still learning, I’m still growing, I’m still training for devotion, as we heard from the Holy Father during his visit. That doesn’t end.”
As a youth minister, “I get to witness Christ in so many different ways,” Barker said. “Watching (the youth) lead other teens and the stories and the journey of faith they share leads me into a deeper realization of who God is, which is awesome.”
St. John Paul II
Born: Karol Józef Wojtyła, May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland
Elected Pope: Oct. 16, 1978
Died: April 2, 2005, in Vatican City
Canonization: April 22, 2015
Feast Day: Oct. 22
Motto: Totus Tuus (Totally Yours)