Circus Maximus, once the scene of Roman chariot races, was transformed into a venue of prayerful reverence, gratitude and love for John Paul II tonight, as tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world gathered for a prayer Vigil in his honor.

The pilgrims were of all ages, but many were young people joined by a large number of mostly young priests, seminarians and religious. The atmosphere was joyful, festive, reverent and uplifting; the darkness lit up by a sea of candlelight torches. As one Brazilian seminarian told me at the end: “It was the perfect preparation for the beatification tomorrow.”

The Vigil was divided into two parts: the first dedicated to remembering the words and actions of John Paul II, the second principally to praying the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary with faithful from around the world.

After video clips of the late Holy Father giving momentous addresses during his many pilgrimages around the world, three moving testimonies were given. Two of them came from John Paul II’s closest collaborators: his long-serving spokesman, Spanish layman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, and Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, his private secretary, now Archbishop of Krakow. The third was from Sr. Marie Simon-Pierre, the French sister whose miraculous healing of Parkinson’s disease was crucial to John Paul’s beatification process.

Interviewed on stage by the evening’s host, Navarro-Valls began by expressing his heartfelt thanks to the late Pope “for the masterpiece that you wrote with your own life.”  He recalled John Paul II’s deep conviction that man is most in need of the Divine Mercy, and that John Paul would go to confession at least once a week. He would also encourage young people to follow his example to receive and be rooted in the sacraments, in particular the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

But Navarro-Valls stressed that John Paul was also firm with young people and challenged them. He dared them to “live lives of radical discipleship,” and would call on them to love one another, using that great Italian phrase “ti voglio bene” which literally means “I desire your authentic good” or to “desire the good of the other” which is “the perfection of love.”

John Paul II “embodied holiness,” Navarro-Valls said, and that holiness was rooted in a “profound and intense prayer life” and regularly participating in the sacraments. He recalled how the Holy Father would often take “scores of petitions” from people and pray for each one. 

Sr. Marie Simon-Pierre began by making a point of thanking John Paul II, together with the rest of her community. Diagnosed in 2001 at the age of 40 with Parkinson’s disease, the same illness that afflicted John Paul, Sr. Simon-Pierre said it was difficult to watch him struggle with disease and that she saw in him her own suffering. The late Pope, she said, was “a pastor after God’s own heart and close to everyone, especially to the “little ones,” the poor and the sick.” And he was “always a defender of life, the family and peace.”

When John Paul II passed away in 2005, she said it was like “losing someone dear who understood me” and this was “especially true” when her medical condition worsened and she felt she couldn’t go on. She asked to be relieved of her duties, but her Mother Superior “had other ideas,” urged her not to give up the fight and to travel to Lourdes. Sr. Simon-Pierre said she had “made peace” with the idea of living in a wheelchair but never gave up praying.

She then recalled her well-documented miraculous recovery on the night of 2nd June 2005: how she noticed that her writing that evening was more legible than before, and how she woke up at 4:30am with a sense of well-being and relief in her body. She had an intense desire to pray and so recited the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary and remained in prayer until 6am. By the time she went to morning Mass, she said she felt healed, at which point the crowd erupted with applause. “I was sick, I prayed, and I was healed,” she said.

The final testimony came from Cardinal Dziwisz, who began with the words John Paul II used to greet people: “Praise be Jesus Christ.” When he first met him, Karol Wojtyla was a professor and in between lectures, Cardinal Dziwisz recalled how John Paul would always go to the chapel and pray. “He always gave the impression he had met with someone,” the cardinal remembered. “His whole life was lived in communion with God,” he said.

He also stressed that Karol Wojtyla was the same man whether it was after he was appointed Archbishop of Krakow or elected Pope. “He didn’t have to change a thing about himself,” the Polish cardinal said. And he added that he only saw him angry twice: once with the mafia in Italy and organized crime in general, and then over the war in Iraq when, during an Angelus he appealed for peace, saying “no more war, war solves nothing.” 

To be proclaimed Blessed tomorrow, Cardinal Dziwisz said, was a title not just for Christians but for non-Christians too, as John Paul was someone who reached to people of all faiths. And he recalled in closing that when those present at his bedside knew he had died, they didn’t say a prayer for the dead, but said the “Te Deum” -– thanksgiving -– for his life. “We felt a great peace among us,” he said, “which we had learned from him during those last days.” 

After concluding with the hymn “Totus Tuus,” composed for the 50th anniversary of John Paul’s priestly ordination, the second part of the Vigil opened with a rich and eloquent summary of the spiritual and pastoral character of John Paul II, given by Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the Vicar of Rome (full text below).

But the bulk of the second half focused on a worldwide recitation of the Luminous Mysteries, or the Mysteries of Light, of the Rosary, which were introduced by John Paul II. Thanks to a live satellite link up with five Marian shrines around the world, each of the five Mysteries of the Rosary were linked to a prayer intention of importance to John Paul II, accompanied afterwards by diverse choral music from each of the five nations. The shrines were: Lagniewniki, Krakow, where the prayer intention focused on youth; Kawekamo, Bugando, Tanzania, on the family; Our Lady of Lebanon, Harissa, on evangelization; the Basilica of Sancta Maria de Guadalupe, Mexico City, on hope and peace among peoples; and lastly Fatima, on the Church.

At the conclusion of the Vigil, the large screens switched to live shot of a chapel in the Apostolic Palace where Pope Benedict XVI was deep in prayer in front of a painting of Our Lady. He later rose to recite the final oration and impart his apostolic blessing to all participants (full prayer below).

Shouts of “Viva il Papa!” and applause, accompanied by music from the Vigil’s orchestra and choirs, ended the night in Circus Maximus, but many of the pilgrims left not to go home, but to visit some of the eight churches in Rome that remained open throughout the night for prayer and confession. A fitting conclusion to an evening in honor of a Pope who died on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday and whose beatification will take place on the same solemnity that he held so dear. 


(H/T and thanks to Rocco Palmo for the following):

The complete libretto for tomorrow’s Mass can be viewed here.


Message of Cardinal Agostino Vallini, Vicar of Rome:

Dear brothers and sisters!

Divine Providence gives us this evening the joy of a great experience of grace and light. With this Marian prayer vigil we hope to prepare ourselves for tomorrow’s celebration, the solemn beatification of the Venerable Servant of God John Paul II. Even though it has been six years since the death of the great Pope—Bishop of Rome and Pastor of the universal Church for 27 years—his memory is particularly vibrant. We feel veneration, affection, admiration, and deep gratitude for the beloved pontiff.

We, above all, remember his witness of faith: a convinced and strong faith, free from fear or compromises, true until his last breath, forged by trails, fatigue, and illness, whose beneficent influence has spread throughout the Church, indeed, throughout the world. His witness, through his apostolic travels, inspired millions of men and women of all races and cultures.

He lived for God. He offered himself entirely to God to serve the Church as a sacrificial offering. He would often repeat this prayer: “Jesus, Pontiff, who handed himself to God as offering and victim, have mercy on us”. His great desire was to become more and more one with Christ the Priest through the Eucharistic sacrifice from which he drew strength and courage for his tireless apostolic action. Christ was the beginning, the center, and the apex of each of his days. Christ was the sense and the purpose of his actions. From Christ he drew energy and fullness of humanity. This explains the need and the desire he had for prayer: Each of his days was dedicated to long hours of prayer and his work was penetrated and infused by prayer.

In this faith, which he lived in his most inner being, we can understand the mystery of the suffering that marked him from when he was young and which purified him like gold that is tested by fire (1Pt 1:7). We were all amazed by the docility of spirit with which he faced the pilgrimage of his disease, even to the point of agony and death.

He was witness to the tragic age of big ideologies, totalitarian regimes, and from their passing John Paul II embraced the harsh suffering, marked by tension and contradictions, of the transition of the modern age toward a new phase of history, showing constant concern that the human person be its protagonist. He was a staunch and credible defender of the human person to the nations and the international institutions, which respected him and have paid him homage, recognizing him as a messenger of justice and peace.

With his gaze fixed on Christ, the Redeemer of humanity, he believed in humanity and showed his openness, trust, and closeness. He loved the human person, pushing us to develop in ourselves the potential of faith to live as free persons, cooperating in the realization of a more just and caring humanity, as workers for peace and builders of hope. Convinced that only the spiritual experience can satisfy humanity he said: the fate of every person and of all peoples is tied to Christ, the only liberator and Savior.

In his first encyclical he wrote: “Man cannot live without love. … His life [remains] senseless, if love is not revealed to him … Christ the Redeemer “fully reveals man to himself” (RH, 10). He began his pontificate with these vibrant words: “Don’t be afraid! Open, open wide the doors to Christ! … Christ knows what is in the human person. Only he knows!”. These words bear witness that he believed that God’s love is inseparable from the love for humans and their salvation.

In his extraordinary energy of love for humanity he loved, with a kind and tender love, all those “wounded by life”, as he called the poor, the sick, the nameless, and those excluded a priori—but he had a particular love for the youth. His calls for the World Youth Days had the purpose of making youth into the protagonists of their own future, becoming builders of history. The youth, he said, are the wealth of the Church and of society. He invited them to prepare for the big choices to be made, to look ahead with confidence, trusting in their own abilities and following Christ and the Gospel.

Dear brothers and sisters, we all know John Paul II’s singular devotion to the Madonna. The motto on the coat of arms of his pontificate, Totus tuus, summarizes well his life, which was oriented toward Christ by means of Mary: ad Iesum per Mariam. As the disciple John, the “beloved disciple”, under the Cross at the Redeemer’s death, took Mary into his home (Jn 19:26–27), John Paul II wanted to always keep Mary mystically close to himself, making her part of his life and his ministry, feeling embraced and loved by her.

The remembrance of our beloved pontiff, prophet of hope, should not mean a return to the past for us, but let us make the most of his human and spiritual heritage; let it be an impetus to look forward. May the words that he wrote in his apostolic letter Novo millennio ineunte from the great Jubilee Year of 2000 resound in our hearts: “Let us go forward in hope! A new millennium is opening before the Church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ. The Son of God … is at work even today: we need discerning eyes to see this and, above all, a generous heart to become the instruments of his work.”

The Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, so dear to Pope John Paul II, whom we now call upon in the praying of the Rosary, help us, in every circumstance, to be witnesses of Christ and proclaimers of God’s love in the world. Amen.


Pope Benedict XVI’s closing oration and blessing:

Hail Mary, poor and humble Woman,
Blessed by the Most High!
Virgin of hope, dawn of a new era,
We join in your song of praise,
to celebrate the Lord’s mercy,
to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom
and the full liberation of humanity.

Hail Mary, lowly handmaid of the Lord,
Glorious Mother of Christ!
Faithful Virgin, holy dwelling-place of the Word,
Teach us to persevere in listening to the Word,
and to be docile to the voice of the Spirit,
attentive to his promptings in the depths of our conscience
and to his manifestations in the events of history.

Hail Mary, Woman of sorrows,
Mother of the living!
Virgin spouse beneath the Cross, the new Eve,
Be our guide along the paths of the world.
Teach us to experience and to spread the love of Christ,
to stand with you before the innumerable crosses
on which your Son is still crucified.

Hail Mary, woman of faith,
First of the disciples!
Virgin Mother of the Church, help us always
to account for the hope that is in us,
with trust in human goodness and the Father’s love.
Teach us to build up the world beginning from within:
in the depths of silence and prayer,
in the joy of fraternal love,
in the unique fruitfulness of the Cross.

Holy Mary,
Mother of believers,
pray for us.