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Statesboro man claims ties to popes

Canonization a personal matter for Catholic parishioner

Statesboro man claims ties to popes

Statesboro man claims ties to popes

Dr. James H. Stephens


In light of the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II one week after Easter Sunday, a local Catholic parishioner recently reflected on the legacy he hopes to leave to his grandchildren.

“I want my grandchildren to continue in their faith and continue to have mercy, especially for the poor,” said Dr. James H. Stephens, an associate professor and distinguished fellow in health-care leadership with the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University. “It’s my hope that they follow in their grandparents’ steps to be active in their church and the ministries of their church.”

Stephens is married to Mary Linda Stephens, and the two have three sons, a 16-year old granddaughter and a 4-year-old grandson.

The Stephenses are members of St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church in Statesboro, but he quickly pointed out that his ancestors, native to Ireland and Germany, have been in the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.
Stephens is a Eucharistic minister, serves on the St. Matthew Parrish Council, is director for the ministry for sick and homebound, and is a fourth-degree Knights of Columbus member.

    James Stephens takes great pride in his religious history and beamed when he shared a personal event that he said happens rarely.

“One of the most important moments in my Christian life was meeting Pope John Paul II (in 1987),” he said. “Very few Catholics get to actually meet the pope of our church. And one that eventually becomes a saint. That’s almost a miracle for a lay person.”
   
    Stephens, whose first career spanned 25 years as president and CEO of three large hospitals and one large health facility and whose second career in academia is currently at 15 years, was CEO of a large Catholic medical center when he received notice from the U.S. State Department that an invitation would be forthcoming to attend a presentation from Pope John Paul II in Phoenix. If Stephens planned to accept the invitation, extensive background checks would be performed.

    When Stephens received the invitation for him and his wife, Mary Linda, she graciously gave up her seat for one of the nuns in the medical facility.
   
    Stephens explained part of the purpose of the pope’s visit.

“Back in the early ’80s, hospitals were just beginning to see HIV/AIDS patients,” he said. “There was a lot of misunderstanding about how the disease was contracted and how to treat it, and a lot of doctors were not admitting patients under that diagnosis. Once physicians and patients became more comfortable with notifying hospitals of the diagnosis, later in the ’80s, an issue arose in some Catholic medical centers about homosexuality and how the centers were going to treat HIV/AIDS patients.
   
    “Not our center,” he continued. “We treated all patients. When Pope John Paul II came to the United States, he made it part of his agenda to clarify how to treat HIV/AIDS patients as it related to the church doctrine on homosexuality.”

    When the time came for the trip to Phoenix, Stephens was understandably thrilled.

“The atmosphere was like electricity,” he said. “So much excitement and enthusiasm in the room.”
   
    Participants waited two hours after going through metal detectors and were surrounded by Secret Service Agents and FBI Agents. Just before the Pope appeared, a Secret Service spokesman gave a stern lecture on what could and could not take place during the event. Anything out of the norm would “clear the room immediately.”

    Stephens recalled the message of Pope John Paul II. “All of our patients that come to Catholic Medical Centers are children of God. Everyone deserves the mercy of Jesus. We treat them like any other patient. We take care of them like any other child of God.

    “And that settled it,” added Stephens. “There was no other problem.”

    But what happened next surprised Stephens. When the pope finished speaking, he left the stage to greet the CEOs.

“Being 6 (feet) 4 (inches) has its advantages,” Stephens said. “I was able to see where he was going. I made my way towards the direction I thought he would go, and I guessed right. I was one of the last ones he greeted.
   
    “He blessed me and gave me a bottle of holy water,” Stephens continued. “We had about a 12-second conversation. I have no idea what I said. I have no idea what he said. I was wrapped up in the emotions of the moment.”

    Stephens said he got up at 4 in the morning to watch the televised canonization of the two popes and said that event was a rarity as well, in that two popes were canonized at the same time and two additional popes were in attendance.

    Having visited Vatican City on his 25th wedding anniversary, Stephens remembered the feeling of being in St. Peter’s Square as he saw it on television.

    In addition to having met Pope John Paul II personally, Stephens’ life was influenced by Pope John XXIII. Stephens was a young boy when Pope John XXIII appointed the Vatican II Council to reform the church and a teen when the reforms began taking place.

 “I have spent all my adult life experiencing these reforms,” Stephens said.

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