The Tragedy, the Priest, and the Painting

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The internationally renowned painter, Ruth Mayer, has just finished what is shaping up to be a hallmark painting of the life of Pope John Paul II, and there is an amazing story of tragedy and compassion behind this work of art.

“It is not a frequent event in history that an artist is chosen to paint a Pope. The American Artist by birth, Ruth Mayer, is commissioned to paint Pope John Paul II. However, the selection process was not as most would suspect. There was no panel that convened or decided who would paint the Pope. Rather, the events of life, behaving more in the fashion of a serendipitous movement of spirit serving purposes unknown to become, arose to silently trumpet an inspired calling, absent the pre-direction of men.”

RD Holden


The internationally renowned painter, Ruth Mayer, has just finished what is shaping up to be a hallmark painting of the life of Pope John Paul II, and there is an amazing story of tragedy and compassion behind this work of art. Here is the still unfolding story, as told to me by Fr. Andrew Sullivan. He is the Catholic priest from Rome who was moved to approach the American Master Artist Ruth Mayer to commission her to paint the life of Pope John Paul II. Without hesitation, with a big heart and a glimmer of adventure in her eye, she agreed.

For those who have faith, the following story is one of God’s awesome providence. For those without faith, there’s no adequate explanation of how so much good can come from a great tragedy. Those involved believe God chose Ruth to do this painting long ago. Knowing so well how generously He had gifted Ruth and for what purpose, He saved this special painting for her hand. This would explain the roundabout way two priests from Rome, carrying letters from the Pope’s personal secretary and seven cardinals, unexpectedly showed up on her doorstep with a special mission for her.

This story flows from the mysterious power hidden in a simple act of compassion. It is like a stone plunging into the water radiating endless ripples of good things for others. In this case, a priest’s simple act of befriending a girl named Kathy in her moment of crisis will end up spreading thousands of ripples of compassion to thousands of children throughout the world.

Consider that when Pope John Paul II was a nine-year-old boy, he lost his mother and received a priest’s compassion. This act has permeated his entire life, eventually moving him to do great things for others. It formed a man who has traveled almost a million miles to bring faith and hope to others. No man in the history of the world has personally encountered and preached to so many as Pope John Paul II. And from where did such a circle of blessings spread across the world, but from a tragedy and a priest.

This Man Karol – Pope John Paul II

In 1986 Fr. Sullivan met the man of the painting, Pope John Paul II. From this encounter, three things still echo in his memory. “The first is that Pope John Paul II had calloused hands and a strong handshake. He must have known hard labor,” thought Fr. Sullivan, not yet knowing the details of the Pope’s personal history. “The second thing is that he was joyful and had a good sense of humor. But this wasn’t a rushed kind of smile temporarily endured for a photo. It was a presence of genuine happiness and security about life that overflowed to everyone present. The third thing is that when this man of importance began to converse with you, he gave you his total attention and made you the important one. His concern for you was focused and undivided. He was not in a rush. He was not distracted with other business. Once he turned to you, it seemed that you were all that mattered to him.”

Ruth’s painting is of this saintly man, whose great compassion for others was forged through personal tragedies. When Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) was only nine years old, his mother died while giving birth. Shortly afterward his older brother died too. These shock waves left Karol in a state of great loss and sadness. Yet, it was precisely his state of spirit that drew a Catholic priest to offer compassion and become the catalyst for an education Karol would otherwise not have received. This priest’s compassionate act surely produced its ripple effects of blessings in Karol’s life. It was no small blessing to open the doors of education to one of the most dynamic and fruitful minds of our age. Karol would become an actor, poet, playwright, philosopher, theologian, university professor, linguist, great orator, political genius and Pope. And all this could be traced back to a priest’s simple act of befriending a child in need.

Ten years later tragedy struck again. In the midst of the birth pangs of World War II, Karol’s father died, leaving Karol to hew stones in a quarry and finish his studies under dim lights in the late hours of night. And, as if these trials were not enough to endure, Karol barely escaped death not once, but twice. He was knocked down by a streetcar and fractured his skull. And then, only a few months later, he narrowly escaped being crushed to death by a truck.

It was during his months of recovery that the mysterious work of grace began in Karol’s soul, giving birth to the priest -- the man of God. As he lay in bed, he reflected on his childhood, his purpose in life, and the inescapable call of God. Nothing less than a series of tragedies had finally persuaded Karol to surrender. In imitation of the compassionate priest he once knew as a broken child, he too would surrender to God’s call to become a compassionate priest for others.

As Pope, Karol Wojtyla has served as a man consumed with the love of God. Early in his pontificate he gave signs of his burning desire to visit and preach the truth to the entire world. Planning to put in many years of hard work, he soon built a swimming pool in the Vatican. To those who complained that this was a waste of money, he simply replied that it was cheaper to build a pool than to hold another conclave. (A conclave is a meeting of the world’s cardinals to elect a new Pope in the event of a Pope’s death or vacancy from office.) He then began traveling and has never stopped since. Some officials in the Church complained that he traveled too much. They were always concerned about the backlog of office work. To this, Pope John Paul II said that sometimes it was necessary to do too much. He was convinced that he was called to personally proclaim in every place what the world’s multitudes were hungry for – the truth of God’s saving mercy, and hope in an age of fear.

Just as Pope John Paul II’s wonderful life was born in the loom of a tragedy and a priest, so was Ruth’s painting. Indeed, her painting is extraordinary not only because it reflects the Holy Father’s life by brush strokes on canvas, but by the very way it came to be, through a tragedy and a priest’s act of compassion.

Ties that Bind

The tragedy was one with which we are all familiar. It happened on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The World Trade Towers of New York collapsed after being hit by airliners in the hands of terrorists. Amid the confusion and chaos that spread throughout the country that day, this disaster caused two people to cross paths, who otherwise would never have met. One was Kathy Curiel of West Covina, California, and the other was Fr. Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic priest from Rome. Without their pivotal encounter the painting of the Pope would never have come to be.

That tragic morning Fr. Sullivan had been scheduled to leave Los Angeles on his way back to Rome. He was packed and ready to go when someone called him to come quickly to the living room. There he joined a family in disbelief as everyone stared at the television. But rather than remain fixated to the TV that morning, Fr. Sullivan decided to go to a nearby church in West Covina and pray.

It was there where he befriended Kathy, a struggling hairdresser originally from Long Island, New York. As she had a family to care for, and made herself available to help anyone in need, she seldom had much time to herself. Kathy was an upbeat person full of spirit, but it seemed her life had completely fallen apart that morning. She had come to church in tears and desperate for help. Yet, even though she was in great anguish, nobody seemed to be offering her a hand. Fr. Sullivan, noticing her distress, approached her and asked if she needed to talk. He soon learned that Kathy’s brother had probably perished in one of the towers that collapsed that morning.

The tragedy made Kathy reflect deeply on her past and this unexpectedly brought about a profound conversion in her own life. Fr. Sullivan had just happened to walk in at the exact moment when Kathy needed a priest. By the end of their long talk she had been renewed by God and had found peace and direction in her life. Although she still had a crisis to deal with, she now had a boost of faith to help carry her through it. She now felt strong enough to go to New York and search for her brother, hoping that he may have survived.

The Painting – “I Love New York”

That same morning, only a few hours drive away at Laguna Beach, Ruth Mayer’s “I Love New York” was on display in her gallery show room. This painting had within it a great angel subliminally placed directly behind and above the Trade Towers with arms out-stretched across the sky, as if conveying a great spiritual lifting-up that suddenly revealed the meaning of the moment of history within it. Yet the painting was completed a year and a half before Sept. 11, 2001.

So overcome by the events of that never-to-be-forgotten morning, the artist decided to move the painting from the back gallery show room into the front window – all nine feet of it -- as an expression of faith and hope for all bearing suffering.

As the evening approached, people began bringing candles and placing them on a ledge in front of the painting in the front window. A large banner beneath the painting read, “God bless America.” Prayer vigils began to be held daily as the candles multiplied over the succeeding days, in a collective mourning. The painting reflected a message of hope, even within one of the greatest tragedies of history.

This painting was first publicly exhibited at the New York Art Expo in March 2000. Although incomplete at that first exhibition, Ruth had already painted the great angel within it. Such inspirations and sublimations are not uncommon in Ruth’s work; on the contrary, they reveal the broad array of the artist’s identity.

In the process of creating the “I Love New York” painting, a struggle ensued which threatened the completion of the work itself. Ruth, uncharacteristically, found it difficult to paint what she envisioned. A great barrier held her back until at last it was broken by a voice in a dream. The message in the dream echoed, “release, that it may become.” She awakened and with a fresh inspiration freely painted her magnificent cityscape of New York. Then again, while being moved to add a subtle image of an angel of peace behind the World Trade Towers, a new struggle began. A conflict re-emerged with the artist seeing the face of the angel being cut in half by a tower. Ruth tried to shift the place of the angel, but it resisted, such that the struggle was resolved only upon hearing again the voice of her dream, “let it become.” With that, a renewed inspiration kept the angel in place behind the tower. Ruth had always felt that the angel was a sign of hope and love, although not knowing its full significance when she painted it.

A few days after September 11, Kathy finally made her way to New York where she discovered that her brother had in fact been lost in the tragedy. This news overwhelmed her soul with a new wave of grief. And even though she had God to help her carry the burden, it still seemed unbearable to go on at times. Yet she survived, and drew closer to God. Fr. Sullivan did not know when, if ever, he would see her again, but he always remembered her in his prayers.

The Mission

In the meantime, after returning to Rome, something quite unexpected happened to Fr. Sullivan. In the spring of 2002, he and another priest were handed the assignment of launching a $20 million fundraising campaign. Its purpose was to erect a training headquarters in Rome for apostles who could be relied upon to be sent anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice according to the needs of the Holy Father and the Church, including a need very close to the Pope’s heart -- to establish centers reaching out to needy children globally, especially children who have either lost their parents or have been abandoned by them.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope John Paul II has made a series of heartfelt pleas to help needy children. In his 2004 Lenten Message, the Pope made one of his strongest challenges: “…I ask that children be put at the center of the Christian communities’ attention…Our youngest brothers and sisters who are suffering from hunger, war and diseases are launching an anguished appeal to the adult world. May their cry of pain not go unheard! May the Virgin Mother…help children in difficulty and bring success to the efforts of all those who seek lovingly to alleviate their sufferings.” (L’Observatoire Romano, English Edition, March 28, 2004)

The new Vatican-approved group of apostles, which Fr. Sullivan and Fr. Knoll represented, already had houses which cared for needy children in Ukraine, Russia, India and Nigeria. But these Boys’ and Girls’ Towns were in serious need of funding to improve and expand their operations, and to allow for much greater numbers of children in dire need of being helped.

The Boys Town near L’viv, Ukraine was among the first where abandoned children were given hope. Typical of these children is the story of a young fellow named Maxim, who came to the Boys Town at 13, after growing up on the streets. His life was the example of the norm that should not be. He spent most of his childhood begging or stealing to survive. Hidden alleys and abandoned houses were his night refuge for years on end. Maxim had never even seen or known his father, while his mother was enslaved by alcoholism. This disability prevented her from caring for him. Soon after entering the Boys’ Town, Maxim’s mother died of cirrhosis of the liver.

Today, after five years at the Boys’ Town, Maxim is nineteen and a new person filled with high ideals and great hopes for the future. The Boys’ Town gave Maxim the genuine love of a family that cared for him. This awakened a human compassion within him. At the Boys’ Town he received love and discipline, medical and emotional help, and private tutoring to catch up with his education. The goal of the Boys’ and Girls’ Towns is to form, from children who have lost everything, responsible and generous-hearted leaders for tomorrow.

By the summer of 2002, Fr. Sullivan returned to the United States, this time with Fr. Knoll. These two priests were armed with a letter of support from the Pope’s personal secretary, along with documents from seven Cardinals backing their project which had its basis in a special approval from Pope John Paul II. With these endorsements, they began visiting people to seek leadership and support for the project.

The whole fundraising challenge was a lesson in learning how to trust in God’s providence. From the beginning of their work, Fr. Sullivan and Fr. Knoll started to learn that God would give them what they needed, not according to their plan, but God’s own. He would lead them in His own mysterious way.

Fr. Sullivan described the first of many incidents which happened after they arrived in the United States which began to open their eyes to this truth: At a large Catholic conference in Wichita, Kansas, the two priests quickly made their first two million dollars. While they were on a break during the conference, Fr. Knoll had confidently said that God was going to help them get their first big donation that very day. He had fervently entreated God to provide them a head start with a million dollar donation. At the very moment Fr. Knoll was saying these things two bills floated down from the ceiling and landed right in front of them. They picked up the phony bills and each held a million dollars in their hands! They had made their first two million and had a good laugh. Fr. Sullivan simply remarked to Fr. Knoll that “the next time you pray for money, you ought to pray for real money.” Apparently some kids up in a balcony way above the conference floor had a hearty laugh at the whole gag. So began the subtle lessons on how to follow wherever God may lead. Little did these priests realize that God would soon lead them to Ruth Mayer.

Paths that Cross

Around the same time these two priests were beginning their mission, Kathy had made her way one day to Laguna Beach, where she found several hours to relax. She decided to take a walk in this beautiful seaside town and forget about her troubles.

As Kathy passed by Ruth Mayer’s art gallery she caught sight of the lively and colorful paintings displayed in the window. She couldn’t help but stop and stare. The same thing happens to many people. Kathy was irresistibly drawn inside where time became lost to enchantment, and she became immersed in Ruth’s art. She proceeded to carefully study each painting and this invariably led her to the back room of the gallery.

In the gallery’s back room Kathy discovered the now nationally known “I Love New York” painting. Tears came to her eyes when she was shown the subliminal image of a smiling and protecting angel with arms outstretched. It was a much-needed message of God’s tender love for her. For Kathy, the experience was a confirmation reassuring her of the providential care of God for her brother, well beyond the confines of this world. That day Kathy felt Ruth an instant friend.

Not long after Kathy’s experience at the Laguna Beach art gallery, Fr. Sullivan and Fr. Knoll came through Los Angeles. They had some people to visit on their list. But Fr. Sullivan also wanted to drop by and say hello to Kathy and see how she was doing. So they visited her and the family for dinner one evening.

During the course of the visit, Kathy introduced Fr. Sullivan and Fr. Knoll to the wonderful world of Ruth Mayer’s art, and in particular to the “I Love New York” painting with its hidden angel. She related her profound spiritual experience at Ruth’s gallery and how she and Ruth had become friends. Ruth’s son, Reed, had given Kathy some large brochures of Ruth’s paintings, and Kathy had unfolded these prints for the priests to see as she told her story.

The day Kathy visited Ruth’s gallery, Reed had sensed Kathy’s connection with 9/11. He saw the tears well up in Kathy’s eyes as she stared at the “I Love New York” cityscape. Knowing nothing of Kathy’s past, Reed went out of his way to do the act of kindness of giving Kathy the brochures of Ruth’s paintings. It was now the beautiful works of art in these brochures, besides Kathy’s moving story, that caught the attention of the priests. And then she related that Ruth had nine children and that she had a big heart for helping children’s causes

Before the priests’ visit with Kathy had ended, a special grace had descended on everyone present. As Kathy thought of the important mission of the priests from Rome sitting near her at the table, and as Fr. Sullivan and Fr. Knoll contemplated Ruth Mayer’s art, the same idea dawned on everyone that God was directing Fr. Sullivan and Fr. Knoll to Ruth Mayer. Kathy’s own experience became an illuminating witness, a signpost pointing the way God wanted these two priests to travel. There was a hidden and beautiful purpose behind all Kathy’s suffering, and God was beginning to reveal it at that very moment. By the time Fr. Sullivan and Fr. Knoll had said their good-byes to Kathy and her family that evening, they were determined to find Ruth Mayer in Laguna Beach. It was in this way that Fr. Sullivan was led to the artist.

The Commissioning

The phone rang at Ruth’s home. It was one of her staff calling from the gallery saying that a priest named Fr. Sullivan, on some kind of a mission from the Vatican, was there with a request to speak with her. Ruth picked up the phone. “Hello, this is Fr. Sullivan from Rome, and I’m here in the United States on a mission. I wonder if it may be possible to arrange a meeting with you at your gallery?” Ruth, with her paintbrush in hand, replied “I plan to be in the gallery next Sunday. I could meet you then.” Puzzled and half-thinking it was a prank call from one of her clients having a bit of fun with her, she went back to the work she was immersed in.

Not long afterward, a member of the gallery staff phoned Ruth back to say that the appointment had been set for the following Sunday. Ruth asked, “So it wasn’t one of my clients playing around? What did he want? I would have talked with him if I thought it wasn’t a joke.” The staff member replied that they did not really know what the priest wanted, only that he was interested in meeting with Ruth. That’s all the priest had said.

The next Sunday, Fr. Sullivan and Fr. Knoll enjoyed a traffic-free morning drive to Laguna Beach. After spending a half hour with Ruth and seeing her work, they finally posed the question: “Ruth, would you be willing to be a part of our mission by accepting a commission to paint the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, with the proceeds directed toward the needs of children?” Ruth did not hesitate to accept the challenge. She had no doubt that God had sent her these messengers to help a multitude of children. After blessing her gallery, the priests left, filled with gratitude and hope.

Ruth’s Pilgrimage to Rome

After accepting the commission to paint Pope John Paul II, Ruth needed to learn more about his life, and Fr. Sullivan was a great help toward this. He gave Ruth books and video tapes that she reviewed over and over again. He visited her a few more times and related stories about the Pope. Fr. Sullivan then obtained from a Vatican office a series of historic photos of his pontificate for Ruth to study.

Although her investigation was necessary, it was not sufficient for Ruth to reach her ultimate goal – to capture the depths of this man’s soul on canvas. To do this, she would need to search into the very eyes of the man, Karol Wojtyla. And this could only be possible by undertaking a personal journey in faith to Rome. So, in the spring of 2004, Ruth left for the eternal city.

Fr. Sullivan marvels at what he calls “the many wonderful graces Ruth received during her stay in Rome.” He mentioned a few examples of what he sees as “the special favors God showered upon her.”

When Ruth arrived in Rome, Fr. Sullivan told her that “to understand the mind and heart of Pope John Paul II, you need to draw inspiration from the same fount where John Paul II draws his strength, from Jesus Christ Himself in the Holy Eucharist.” So Ruth attended the Holy Father’s Masses during Holy Week and Easter, 2004. And Ruth was given a special sign welcoming her to Rome when, in St. Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday, she randomly opened the Bible to the book of Ruth. And almost exactly around the same time, two others who share her desire to help children through this painting also opened their Bibles to the same page– one of them an hour’s drive from the Vatican.

During her stay in Rome, Ruth kept very busy. She always had new materials to read from Fr. Sullivan. Ruth read about the Eucharist, various writings of the Pope, even his poetry, to get a feel for the spirit of the man. The chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Peter’s Basilica, where Pope John Paul II for many years has encouraged daily prayer, became a special source of inspiration to Ruth throughout her stay in Rome. During her prayer, she experienced the presence of angels and many profound consolations. Ruth later told Fr. Sullivan that this is what she loved most about her trip to Rome.

Ruth visited numerous Vatican officials, and enjoyed cordial conversations with bishops as well as three of the highest ranking cardinals of the Catholic Church. Ruth was also warmly received by the American Embassy to the Holy See and was interviewed by Vatican Radio. Between all these appointments and studies, she even found the time to paint the Roman scenes she encountered and loved so much.

The artist also shared with Fr. Sullivan that, during her stay in Rome, she experienced several prophetic dreams about her painting, receiving “a special divine assurance that her God-given task to paint the Holy Father would be fulfilled,” and would produce wonderful fruits in the world. Although it proved difficult to arrange, Ruth never faltered in her faith that she would personally meet the Holy Father and receive his blessing on her work.

And so it came to pass. On the day before she was scheduled to fly back to California, Ruth knelt before Pope John Paul II and spoke of her commission to paint his life. He gave his full attention to her. Ruth gazed into his eyes and he returned her affection with a serene, fixed look into her own eyes. This was the moment arranged in heaven for which Ruth had patiently waited. Her soul was instantly enlightened with a grasp of the sheer beauty of this man’s soul. Pope John Paul II then gently placed his right hand upon Ruth’s head and called down God’s blessing upon her and her mission.

Later in the day, Fr. Sullivan asked Ruth what she had experienced when she searched into the Pope’s eyes. All Ruth would say was, “I saw fire.” But she also added that she saw a man who was not a self-serving individual -- that her “intuitions about him were true.” Ending on this note, Ruth boarded her plane the following day to return to Laguna Beach, happy that she had now received the key inspiration to finish her painting, entitled, “The Song of a Beautiful Soul.”


This story is a witness to a truly anointed painting. As Fr. Sullivan has put it, “the story shows not only Ruth’s hand, but God’s own hand at work in the creation of ‘The Song of a Beautiful Soul’.” But this is only a brief sketch of the birth of the painting. As Ruth Mayer’s paintings typically contain subtle epiphanies within them, and even uncanny prophetic elements, perhaps more stories will need to be told in the future.

Fr. Sullivan often likes to quote the old saying, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” The story of Ruth’s painting certainly underlines this truth. As this priest describes it, “it is a love story of how God reaches out to answer the pains and prayers of His children throughout the world in a surprising way. In a mysterious and marvelous manner, He has taken up a tragedy in His hands and made a beautiful gift out of it to relieve the sufferings of the little ones.”

It is worth repeating that for those who have faith, this story is an example of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. For those without faith, there is no adequate explanation of how so much good could come from such a tragedy -- from a tragedy, a priest and, now, from a painting.

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Fr. Sullivan


Miles Jesu
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