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BY TOM McFEELYContributing Editor
VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II was not alone as he lay on his deathbed
in his Vatican apartment in the early hours of Saturday, April 2, the last day
of his life.
Beneath his third-floor windows,
where the lights stayed on all through the chilly early spring night, thousands
of young pilgrims kept vigil with their beloved Holy Father, praying and
singing to communicate their affection to the dying Pope.
In fact, the large majority of the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square
were youth, dressed in the jeans, sneakers and backpacks of Third Millennium
teens and college students. Many knelt or sat cross-legged around lit candles
on the square’s ancient cobblestones as they chatted, prayed and sang.
Bostonian Ted Woodard, 20, one of five American students sitting together
near the square’s north fountain, explained why they were there. “To pray, and
be with the other people here and just kind of keep watch,” said Woodard, an
undergraduate at Baltimore’s Loyola College who is currently studying economics
at Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven.
Woodard said John Paul’s tireless ministry to youth — a central theme of
his pontificate — was a major reason so many young people were sacrificing
their sleep to be with him that evening.
“Like many Catholics, for me he is in some ways a fatherly and
grandfatherly figure and a guide for us — and an inspiration for the effort to
connect with youth,” he said. “I think it’s probably a surprise to a lot of
people that we’re here.”
At 2 a.m., six priests and 20 seminarians from the recently opened San
Vitaliano Papa international seminary in Segni, Italy, prayed the rosary
together beneath the giant obelisk that stands in the center of St. Peter’s
Square. Afterward, San Vitaliano Papa’s rector, Father Daniel Cima, noted that
his seminary is itself a child of John Paul’s New Evangelization.
“He’s our father,” said Father Cima simply. “The spirit of our seminary
is the evangelization of the culture.”
Equally devoted to the dying Pope were a prayerful sextet of
Spanish-speaking pilgrims — three from Colombia, two from the Dominican
Republic and one from Spain — who were huddled in a circle around a candle.
During a brief pause from their prayers, one of the Colombians explained that
that he and his friends had flown directly to Rome for the sole purpose of
being close to the Holy Father in his final days.
“We’re here just to pray now for the Pope,” he said. “To give back to him
for all travels he has made all over the world to be with us.”
Not far away, an Italian family of four bore silent witness to John
Paul’s love of another vulnerable group, the handicapped. The family’s young
father stood guard beside the wheelchair of his profoundly disabled son, who
stared reverently at the windows of the Pope’s apartment. On the wheelchair’s
other flank knelt the boy’s mother, cradling his exhausted little brother in
Elsewhere, though, the seemingly boundless energy of youth remained
evident as the night wore on.
Lisa Rumpza, 20, of St. Paul, Minn., and Theresa Klein, 21, of Dell
Rapids, S.D., were alert and lively as they spoke with a reporter shortly
before 3 a.m. The pair, who are studying this term at Rome’s Angelicum
University as part of their Catholic Studies curriculum at the University of
St. Thomas in St. Paul, had been in the square since before 10 p.m., except for
a brief absence to pick up candles and extra clothes to keep warm.
Both young women said that they had been inspired by the Pope during
World Youth Days at which they were present — Rome 2000 for Lisa; Toronto 2002
for Theresa. “He loves the youth,” said Rumpza. “He sees hope in young people.
“Even when he’s old and sick and weak, he’s such an inspiration,” she
continued. “Young people are looking for something better, and they see that in
him. That’s what they are looking for.”
Added Klein, “He’s just an amazing man. It’s really sad for us because
he’s the only Pope we’ve ever known. He’s such a great saint and a great Pope —
it won’t be the same.”
‘I Thank You’
Directly below John Paul’s window, a large group of young Italians sang
psalms and other religious songs long into the night to the accompaniment of
guitars. They had no way of knowing whether the Pope could hear their
boisterous harmonies, but they wanted to ensure that he was aware of their
devoted presence if he could.
According to a statement the next morning by papal spokesmen Joaquin
Navarro-Valls, John Paul was listening to their serenade and indeed responded
to them as his life ebbed away.
“Last evening, the Pope probably had in mind the young people whom he has
met throughout the world during his pontificate,” Navarro-Valls said in his
statement. “In fact, he seemed to be referring to them when, in his words, and
repeated several times, he seemed to
have said the following sentence: ‘I have looked for you. Now you have come to
me. And I thank you.’”
filed this report
from Vatican City.