Where were you when Pope John Paul the Great died?
I was just finishing a meal at Armando’s, a small restaurant near St. Peter’s Square. My companions were David Quinn, religion and social affairs correspondent of the Irish Independent newspaper, and Register freelance correspondent Edward Pentin.
As we were settling the bill shortly before 10 p.m. Rome time, Vatican Radio staffer Michael Kelly, who had left our dinner party early to get back to work, called Edward by cell phone to tip us that news of the Pope’s death had just been made public.
Edward sped off to start work on his most pressing journalistic assignments, while David and I walked swiftly over to St. Peter’s to mingle with the edges of the massive throng that had gathered to pray a rosary for John Paul. We stood together in silence for a few minutes, listening to the prayers being led by a small band of clergy standing on the front steps of Christendom’s greatest basilica, far across the vast square.
Quinn, like Pentin, faced with the tighter deadlines of a daily newspaper, soon returned to his hotel room to file articles for the Independent. Not having to file any stories that night, I was free to stay and pray with the rest of the mourners.
As we continued chanting our rosary responses, I decided to try to move closer to the front of the square. Surprisingly, once I slipped through the tightly packed bodies of the faithful jamming the square’s entranceways, the crowd thinned considerably and I was able to walk with little difficulty right up to the barrier separating us from the priests and religious leading the rosary prayers.
Since it was Easter Saturday, we were praying the Glorious Mysteries, and by the time I reached the front we were beginning the fourth mystery, the Assumption of Mary. Remembering the Holy Father’s extraordinary devotion to the Blessed Virgin, I was particularly moved by the decade’s prayers, picturing in my mind’s eye John Paul being welcomed personally to paradise by the Queen of Heaven whom he had always so cherished.
Actually, this was the second time that day I had prayed the Glorious Mysteries for the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. At about 3 a.m., after interviewing a number of the youth keeping vigil with the dying Pope throughout his last full night of life, I was so moved by their example that I got down on my knees facing the Pope’s apartment to offer my own poor prayers on his behalf.
Repeating the same decades on my feet in the evening, I recalled with chagrin the discomfort I had felt while kneeling on the square’s cobblestones and mentally contrasted my squirming over this minor inconvenience with the Holy Father’s heroic and uncomplaining witness of profound physical suffering during the final weeks of his life.
As we completed the rosary’s final decade, images of the last day that I had visited St. Peter’s Square flooded my memory. Less than seven months ago, my new bride Alina and I were seated in front of thousands of people just outside the basilica’s massive doors on a sunny late September morning, dressed in our wedding attire and waiting along with 90 other newlywed couples to receive the Holy Father’s personal blessing of the marriage we had celebrated only four days earlier in Ottawa.
During the general audience that preceded the blessing ceremony, the Pope’s Parkinson’s-induced infirmities were obvious enough. He had to be lifted in and out of his popemobile, and during most of his public remarks his voice was slurred to the point of incomprehension.
Not so when Alina and I knelt before him for his personal blessing, though. His diction while pronouncing “God Bless You” over us in English was every bit as clear, powerful and resonant as in the early days of his papacy.
Tears of gratitude welled up in my eyes as I remembered that moment. How lucky are my wife and I, to have had our marriage blessed publicly by a living saint?
After the rosary prayers were finished, I walked slowly back across the emptying square. A passage from St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy echoed in my mind, as it had at other times since it became clear early Friday morning that the Pope was soon to die.
“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith,” the great evangelist wrote as he neared the end of his earthly labors. “From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me.”
How true that also must be for John Paul the Great! How joyfully he must have been welcomed into the next life by Our Lord, I thought, and how close to the throne of Jesus he must now be seated as he prays in eternity for all of the flock that he loved so dearly while he was here with us!
I paused for a moment at the edge of the square. I looked back one last time at the third-floor windows of the Vatican apartment that had been home to the Pope for the last 26 years.
“Good-bye, Holy Father,” I said. “And thank you.”
Tom McFeely is the
Register’s Contributing Editor.