Remembering his ten hours queueing in the Vatican City, Mark Cooper describes his pilgrimage to Rome to honour the late Pope, John Paul II. While the atmosphere was at times mixed, the reward was to bid farewell to the great man.
Most will have seen images on the news of the great crowds gathering to walk past John Paul II while he lay in state. The ten hours I spent in that crowd turned out to be some of the most memorable of my life. Words cannot fully convey the mixed emotions I felt in that situation, from the sadness of John Paul II’s death to the joy of remembering his enormous achievements.
I flew out to Rome in the early hours of Tuesday 5 April, reaching the Vatican by about 2pm to join the masses of people queuing to pay their respects. Feeling somewhat put off by the severe numbers I asked one of the stewards how long the queue was going to be. He said it would be about four hours, so I decided to go ahead. After all, what would be the point wandering around Rome for two days when the only way I could justify leaving behind my revision for finals was that I wanted to pay my respects to the Holy Father, the man who had meant so much to me? I reached the High Altar of St Peter’s at midnight. John Paul II is the only Pope I have ever known, so his death marks the end of an era for me. He has been such an inspiration to millions of people, young and old, and I wanted to pay my final respects to him. But I was disappointed at the behaviour of some in the crowd, many of whom were hungry and exhausted. Elderly Italian women would push me, yelling that I hadn’t moved that extra available inch towards the person in front of me. I felt lonely too, as I queued by myself while everyone else seemed to be in groups. I stood bewildered seeing so many people of different nationalities, ages and attitudes. It seemed some were queuing out of a morbid curiosity: I heard an American woman remark, “We’re not religious – we’re just in Rome for a few days and thought this would be something to do.” I was finding the waiting difficult for emotional and physical reasons, and here was someone who was quite happy to bring her family into such a situation for “something to do”.
To their credit, the Roman authorities gave out free water at a rate of one million bottles per day, and there were plenty of ‘portaloos’ around. Medics were on standby to deal with those in need. There were a million people and Rome was completely overwhelmed. Occasionally some of the young people in the crowd would start chanting “Joannes Paulus” and clapping, but few seemed to be joining in with the hymns and prayers coming through the speakers. The majority of those around me were young Italians, aged between 14 and 30. What a testimony to the legacy of John Paul II, I thought.
When hearing of the thousands of young people gathering in St Peter’s Square on the Friday before he died, the Holy Father remarked, “I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.” I reflected on this while waiting, and realised how much of an achievement the Holy Father had made with young people. The World Youth Days, which had been held in Rome and Toronto, had attracted millions of young people from all over the world, who wanted to come and hear the Pope speaking about the Good News of Jesus Christ. Another day is planned for this year in Cologne, and the Holy Father was said to have been looking forward to it greatly.
At 9.37pm, on Saturday 2 April 2005, Pope John Paul II died in his apartment in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. Despite its grandeur, the Holy Father’s own rooms are relatively simple, with a bed, a side table, a few cupboards, a study with a selection of books, and a dining room. The rooms leading from where the Pope lay had been bustling with cardinals, other senior clerics and nuns who look after the Pope. In addition there were doctors and members of the Vatican Press Office, all making sure that that he was comfortable and that the world was being informed of his state of health. Born in 1920, John Paul II grew up in pre-war Poland. As a youngster he excelled at sport, enjoying football and skiing while his great love for the theatre almost led to him becoming an actor. However, he decided to study philosophy before training for the priesthood. He was eventually ordained in 1946 and after rapid promotion he became Archbishop of Krakow in 1964. Archbishop Wojtyla, who became a Cardinal in 1967, was considered very much an outsider for the Papacy, after the sudden death of John Paul I, after just thirty-three days as Pope. Taking the name John Paul II, Cardinal Wojtyla was elected Pope in 1978.
When the news broke that the Holy Father’s health had severely deteriorated I was just about to go to bed. It did not come as a complete surprise, for he had been ill since February, having undergone a tracheotomy to aid his breathing. Over the past ten years or more, the world has witnessed the physical deterioration of a man once known as God’s Athlete, largely due to Parkinson’s disease.
The period of Sede Vacante (or ‘Vacant See’) is a mixed one: the Church is without its chief shepherd, the vicar of Christ. However, it is also a time for reflection upon and celebration of the life and work of the late Holy Father. Never has a period of Sede Vacante been more significant than after the recent death of Pope John Paul II. The Church’s 264th Supreme Pontiff had been the first non- Italian for over 450 years and the youngest for over a century. His twenty-six year Pontificate was the third longest in history, after St Peter and Pius IX, and in that time he wrote more than all of his predecessors put together.
With one of the most recognisable faces on the planet, Pope John Paul II was hugely significant on the world stage. Most Popes have not tended to leave the Vatican a great deal. The running of the Roman Curia (the Church’s administrative and governmental workings) is a very busy job. The Pope has to personally oversee all appointments of cardinals, bishops, nuncios (ambassadors to the Holy See) etc, as well as speaking out on a whole range of moral and social issues. Adding a hectic program of international travel was a vast undertaking by John Paul II, and a step in a very new direction for the Catholic Church. In his twenty-six year Pontificate, the Holy Father visited more than 120 countries. To each of these countries, including various parts of the UK in 1982, he has taken his message of The New Evangelisation.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the newly elected Pope, and John Paul II’s Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and Dean of the College of Cardinals, summarises the New Evangelisation as follows: “Human life cannot be realised by itself. Our life is an open question, an incomplete project, still to be brought to fruition and realised. Each man’s fundamental question is: How will this be realised — becoming man? How does one learn the art of living? Which is the path toward happiness? To evangelise means: to show this path — to teach the art of living. The deepest poverty is the inability of joy, the tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory. This is why we are in need of a New Evangelisation — if the art of living remains an unknown, nothing else works. But this art is not the object of a science; this art can only be communicated by [one] who has life, he who is the Gospel personified — Jesus Christ.” With this understanding of the New Evangelisation in mind, we can make more sense of his Pontificate. We can see John Paul as a man persuaded of his mission to spread the word of his God, applying his faith to the significant problems facing the world. He will perhaps be best remembered for his stance against the communist regime in his native Poland, where he supported the Solidarity Movement. Along with pressure from US President Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the communist regime was toppled and the people of Poland looked to their country’s greatest son as a father for the whole nation. In more recent times, John Paul II firmly opposed the War in Iraq and labelled it “a failure of humanity”. Both George W Bush and Tony Blair individually visited the Pope during the conflict, and he apparently expressed his immense sorrow and disappointment at the action they were taking in Iraq.
John Paul II’s radical pilgrim papacy almost led to his death in 1981. While being driven around St Peter’s Square four shots were fired by two would-be assassins. One ran away and was never found, but the other, Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish Muslim, is still in jail. John Paul II famously met Agca in prison after recovering from the attack, offering him forgiveness. During the week before the papal funeral Agca reportedly asked to attend the Requiem at St Peter’s, but his request was turned down.
A key theme of John Paul II’s Pontificate was ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue. Much has been done to heal the split between the Eastern and Western Churches, such as the returning of the relics of great Eastern Patriarchs Saint Gregory of Nazianze and Saint John Chrysostom, which were stolen by crusaders in the Middle Ages. During his 1982 visit to the UK he became the first Pope since the Reformation to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope was involved in a number of ecumenical services during his visit—something unthinkable in previous eras. Great crowds, both Catholic and Protestant, followed his every move and there was even talk of union between Rome and Canterbury. This was an historic trip made all the more significant as it took place during the Falklands Crisis. He called for a peaceful end to the conflict, an appeal repeated in a visit to Argentina days later.
John Paul II met with senior representatives of all the major religions throughout his papacy, and will be especially remembered for his dialogue with the Jewish and Muslim people. Jews in 1978 were not at all sure what to make of a Polish Pope, yet he has come to symbolise for them much of what is best in Christianity. He was the first Pope to visit a concentration camp, Auschwitz, in 1979, and made history in 1986 by being the first Pope since St Peter to visit and pray in a synagogue, condemning anti-Semitism as “sinful”. He also affirmed the validity of Jewish faith and of God’s covenant with the Jews: “The Jewish religion is not extrinsic to us but in a certain way intrinsic to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and, in a certain way, it can be said that you are our elder brothers.” During 2000, the Pope went to Israel. As was his custom, the Pope kissed the soil of the land he was entering and listened to its national anthem. The Pope visited the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Jerusalem Temple and like so many humble Jews before him, he placed a prayer of petition to the God of Israel in a crack between the stones. Dialogue with the Islamic faith too runs through the Pontificate of John Paul II. In his eyes, there should be no hostility between Islam and the Catholic Church. When the Pope hosted the World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi, thousands of Muslims accepted his invitation to world religions to observe a day of fasting and prayer for peace. The Pope’s outreach to Islam began with his address to 50,000 young Muslims in the stadium at Casablanca, where King Hussein introduced the Pope to the crowd as “an educator and a defender of values that are shared by Islam and Christianity”.
On reaching the doors of St Peter’s I realised what had been going on for the last ten hours. My pilgrimage to pay homage to the Pope had been a tiny reflection of his life of much travelling and physical suffering. How could I possibly complain about ten hours of sore feet, tiredness and hunger, when the Holy Father had suffered from Parkinson’s disease and other ailments for so long? There is an old Polish saying that anyone who dies in the Easter Octave goes straight to heaven, and as I walked passed his body I was sure that John Paul II was already enjoying the fruits of eternal life. I paused and genuflected for a brief moment before being ushered along by the stewards.
By the time I left Rome on Wednesday, the queue was reaching well over fifteen hours yet it seemed not to discourage people from joining it. There were at least three separate queues to join the main one, which started at the bottom of the Via della Conciliazione and trailed around the side streets for a couple of miles then heading straight up to St Peter’s Square, before meandering into the Basilica. Watching the crowds on the news back home filled me with great joy, particularly the images from Krakow. Images of thousands of Poles being crowded onto trains to undertake an uncertain journey are usually found in films about the Second World War, but these Poles were undertaking the greatest pilgrimage of their lives — to bid farewell to one of their greatest countrymen.
Now the Church looks to the future, with Cardinal Ratzinger to be the new Pontiff, as Pope Benedict XVI. Whatever his plans for the Church, one thing is not in doubt — John Paul II will be difficult to replace.ARCHIVE: 0th week TT 2005