Since being called as a General Authority in October 1963, President Thomas S. Monson has addressed 89 general conferences; this will be his 90th. He has addressed 44 annual or semiannual gatherings as a member of the First Presidency, delivering multiple addresses in each, in addition to speaking at general meetings of Church auxiliaries. No living person has stood before more conference congregations.
Yet when President Monson stands at the pulpit during the 178th General Conference, he will do so in a new office. During proceedings of the two-day conference, which convenes Saturday, April 5, he will be sustained in a solemn assembly as the 16th President of the Church. He succeeds President Gordon B. Hinckley, who died Jan. 27.
During a recent visit with the Church News, President Monson reflected on that momentous occasion when, for the first time, Church members worldwide will raise their hands to sustain him as President of the Church. Asked about his thoughts on this sacred event, he said, "When you realize that hands will be raised in the traditional fashion, it's an overwhelming feeling of humility and gratitude for the faith of the membership of the Church. I've had those feelings when I've read the names for sustaining on previous occasions and when I was sustained on previous occasions."
Asked what members, beyond raising their hands, can do to show their support, he said, "I like the passage, 'Wherefore, now let every man learn his duty, and to act in the office in which he is appointed, in all diligence' (Doctrine and Covenants 107:99).
"I like the saying, 'Do your duty, that is best, Leave unto the Lord the rest.'
"If every member of the Church did his or her duty, the Church will remain on safe ground. When a person reads the 84th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, I do not know how anyone who is called to any position in the Church could not want to do his very best. In that section, the Lord gave the promise: '...I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up' (Doctrine and Covenants 84:88).
"What a great promise."
Asked about his thoughts and feelings pertaining to the moment he realized that he was going to be the next president of the Church, the one who holds all the priesthood keys, President Monson said, "I've always followed the philosophy, 'Serve where you're called, not where you've been or where you might be. Serve where you're called.'
"I did that as a bishop, as a stake presidency member, as mission president and as an apostle. I've never speculated on what might lie down the road for anything in my life. I just never did. I didn't know but what President Hinckley would outlive me. Some die young, some die older."
President Monson spoke of a "great loneliness" that he has felt since President Hinckley's passing. "I knew him so well. I worked with him in three First Presidencies. We knew how each other thought. And when I got word that he had passed away, I began to realize that the person with whom I had conversed on any subject was no longer here. There was really no one else. We were two men who were so close. We sat next to each other so many years.
"I was called to his bedside. President (Henry B.) Eyring (who was second counselor in the First Presidency) was with me. On Saturday, the day before he died, I said to his family, "I think we ought to come at three o'clock on the Sabbath day, and give Brother Hinckley a blessing.' I called Brother (Boyd K.) Packer (then-Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve) so he could be there with Brother Eyring and me because he's also been close to Brother Hinckley. That day, as the male members of Brother Hinckley's family, his doctor, and the little group that I had arranged for, put our hands on Brother Hinckley's head and gave him a blessing, I realized that it would not be long before he would be called home. I held his wrist and tapped it, one friend to another. Within three hours after the blessing, we got word that he had gone home to Heavenly Father."
President Monson said that he still has to remind himself that President Hinckley is no longer in his office in the Church Administration Building. Recently, President Monson was moved into the office space that had been occupied by President Hinckley. "At times, I still start walking toward the door that leads to my old office," President Monson said.
"In our first temple meeting, the day after President Hinckley's funeral, I sat in my chair, the first counselor's chair. I had no thought that I would sit in any different chair. It never crossed my mind. My Brethren reminded me that I now needed to sit where Brother Hinckley had sat. I moved to that chair.
"Even today, I was sitting in a chair I had occupied for all those years, and I realized that Brother Hinckley wasn't going to come through the door. I think that describes the relationship that Brother Hinckley and I had."
When he moved into his new office, President Monson brought along some of his favorite pieces of art work, the main one being a depiction of Jesus Christ by artist Heinrich Hofmann. The copy of the painting has followed President Monson into every office he has occupied since he was called as a bishop at age 22. He always hangs it on a wall where he can see it from his desk. Frequently, he looks at the painting, reminding himself of the Savior's teachings and love. He constantly reminds himself that he is on the Lord's errand.
If he could have the wish of his heart, he expressed, it would be that everyone would be on the Lord's errand, ready to serve wherever there is a need and whomever is in need.
He expressed the philosophy that people would find joy and happiness even in a world filled with sorrow and challenges "if we could cultivate an attitude of understanding, and come to genuinely like people. I've rarely met a person that I didn't want to get to know better. I'm a little forward; if I see someone I've never met before, I'll walk up and say, 'I'm Brother Monson, what's your name?' I don't wait for someone to approach me. It doesn't matter who they are."
President Monson has always been willing and anxious to help others. One example of his desire to help others is found in an experience at Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City, where he had gone to administer to a young child. While there, the mother of another patient asked if he would administer to her child. Still others made similar requests. After he had administered to about a dozen individuals, he was preparing to leave the hospital. He walked down the corridor and, upon approaching the elevator, saw a man standing there. President Monson sensed that the man wanted his help but was reluctant to ask for it. President Monson extended his hand, introduced himself, and said, "Can I help you?"
"The man teared up," President Monson related. "He said, 'I have a grandson who is ill here. His father, my son, doesn't hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. I've been hoping I could find someone who would join with me in giving my little grandson a blessing. I said, 'Well, I'm here. Let's go provide him a blessing.'
"We walked down the corridor. There was his grandson. I would guess he was about 9. We who held the Melchizedek Priesthood gathered around that little boy. I looked at the father. He could not join in the circle because he did not hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. I said, 'You sisters in the room, kindly bow your heads in prayer while we give the blessing to this little boy.' I said to the father, 'Why don't you just stand over here, near the head of the bed. While you can't lay hands on the head of your boy, you will be close enough to feel the Spirit, and learn how it is done so that one day you will be able to give blessings to your family.'
"One of the nicest letters I've ever received was from the grandfather of the boy. He said, 'The breakthrough we have prayed for has come. My son is now striving to hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. The fact that you wanted him to be a little closer, rather than sitting over on a chair, even though he couldn't be in the circle, and what you said to him that now is the time to qualify to hold the Melchizedek Priesthood so the next time any of his children is ill he will be qualified to give them a blessing touched his heart."'
President Monson said, "I thought, 'What if I had not noticed that man standing by the elevator?'
"I don't know what prompts others, but I know what prompts me. When I get a feeling that I need to be somewhere and be doing something, whether it sounds plausible to me or not, I go. And I find that the thought came because the Lord knew that He didn't need to give Brother Monson a lot of advance notice. It makes me feel so good inside to think that I would get the call, or the inspiration, that the Lord knows who I am and that He knows that I will go."
President Monson explained that sometimes promptings come to his wife, Frances Johnson Monson. She has encouraged him to make many visits to people in need, and has accompanied him on those visits, as she did one day when they were busy with other activities. Sister Monson told him that they should leave immediately and go to a local hospital to visit an acquaintance. They arrived just in time for President Monson to offer words of comfort to his acquaintance and administer to him before the man passed away.
President Monson said he is blessed as he reaches out to bless others. He learns and is edified in every encounter. Administering to the dying father in an impoverished family's home, he quoted a scripture. Afterward, the man's wife asked him to write down the scripture so she could read it later. "I didn't have any paper, so I asked her if she had something on which I could write down the scripture. She handed me a small piece of paper, saying I could write on the back. I turned it over and saw that it was a tithing receipt."
He said that he left with a feeling of gratitude that he had witnessed in a home where there was such obvious poverty a wealth of faith that nurtured his own faith.
It is fitting, that 44 1/2 years after he was sustained as a General Authority, to look back at President Monson's inaugural general conference address, which he delivered on Friday morning, Oct. 4, 1963, after having been sustained as a new member of the Quorum of the Twelve. In part, he said: "I am grateful for the words of Jesus Christ, our Savior, when He said: '...I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him....'
"I earnestly pray, my brothers and sisters, that my life might always merit this promise from our Savior...."
Recently, in addressing members of stakes in Bolivia by satellite broadcast, President Monson said, "This is the work of the Lord, and I am grateful for the privilege and blessing to lead the Church at this time. I need your prayers. I plead for them." (See Church News, March 22, 2008, p. 3.)
His desire remains as it has been throughout his life: to be on the Lord's errand and, as he said during a Church News interview on his 80th birthday last August, "to live the best I can and do the most for others as long as I can."
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