There is something different about Italy. Thousand-year-old monuments tell the story of an empire passed; gorgeous and ornate churches speak to the great Christian heritage lived out especially in this country. Friendly people welcome you into their homes as if you are family. Streets bustle with traffic and people trying to visit the historic churches or the shops.
With all of the domestic order that one finds in Italy, social order is a topic altogether something else. Traffic flows as it sees fit, with no lines to guide it, and lines in stores do not exist, as whoever can squeeze to the front is next. Trying to receive holy Communion at Mass is always interesting, because when it is time to receive, the Italians step in front of you, even pushing, to receive the Lord they so love and adore.
I awoke on the morning of March 31 to the report that the Holy Father was, after two lengthy and recent hospitalizations, suffering from heart failure and an infection. At first I thought it was overly active and premature media hype. But not only were all of the major networks reporting the same, but the Vatican also indicated that John Paul’s health was “seriously compromised.” Local authorities began to spread word that millions were expected to come to St. Peter’s Square to mourn the imminent passing of the Holy Father.
That first day ended and the next began with little change in the pope’s condition. We were told he remained in stable but serious condition. After long hours of prayer for his benefit, I began to think that John Paul, like so many times before, was going to get the better of this set-back and appear at any moment from his window atop St. Peter’s Square, so easily visible from the rooftop of the North American College.
Gradually, more and more news was released from the Vatican that began to point to the inevitable, and ever-increasing numbers of the faithful were arriving to pray under his window.
By Saturday evening many pilgrims had come to Rome, sensing the end was near. And, in fact, Saturday evening, at 9:36 p.m. Rome time, John Paul II gave up his spirit and passed over to the Lord at the age of 84.
The media coverage was unprecedented, and I was deeply moved by President Bush’s words that John Paul II had in death descended the throne of St. Peter, so that he could ascend the altar of God. So much respect, so much admiration, so much love from humanity was pouring out for this pope, even by those who often seemed at odds with him.
On April 8, the church and the world gathered in prayer for the Requiem Mass to bury John Paul next to so many of his predecessors in the grottos of St. Peter’s Basilica. Cardinal Ratzinger, celebrant for the funeral rites, said that just as John Paul had once looked from that remote window in the square and blessed us, so now he gazes from the much nearer window of the Father’s house in heaven, blessing us with the robust smile he always wore.
What I find inspiring is how so many different traditions, beliefs, approaches, and even understandings of God came together to say farewell to one of the world’s greatest witnesses to hope.
As I saw a current and ex-American president sit alongside our Middle Eastern brothers, and 1 million ordinary men, women, children, and even pets sit alongside each other as calmly, reverently, and attentively as the 5,000 that Jesus fed, I realized that one of the greatest lessons John Paul II taught was his last: man does value life and he hungers for something in it that is more than what the ordinary gives. We thrive for deeper meaning to our existence, for something that is beyond us.
Ultimately the Romans were stellar in their handling of the estimated 4 million who came to Rome to see John Paul off to the Father. Not so much as a petty crime has been reported during that time. Indeed the abilities and faith of the Romans affected the whole world, as it has in the 2000-year Christian tradition. Rome is truly the universal Catholic city, where all are welcome.
As Vicar of Christ, John Paul II communicated in life and death what he preached for so long — faith, hope, and charity, all three of which those who mourn him have experienced and exercised in these days. Farewell to John Paul, and our deepest and most profound thanks for his help in forming this generation with sanctity and hope. God, Father and protector of all, grant eternal rest unto your servant, Karol Jozef Wojtyla, and let your perpetual light shine always upon him. May he rest in peace!
Bryan Babick is a seminarian for the Diocese of Charleston in his second year of theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.