Together with millions of people from all around the world, I had the privilege of taking part in the Mass of the Resurrection for Pope John Paul II in Rome on April 8, 2005. The experience of this ceremony will linger in my memories for the rest of my life.
During my short stay in Rome, I had the opportunity to hear about his last days from his personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, and others who were with the Holy Father to the very end of his earthly pilgrimage.
On the morning of Easter Sunday, he looked forward to addressing the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square. In fact, he was perfectly able to talk and the doctor saw no reason to discourage him from delivering his message urbi et orbi (to the city and the world).
But, as we all recall now, when he came to the window and tried to speak, he was physically unable. Though greatly frustrated and disappointed, it was with calmness and resignation that he said to his staff that, on Easter Sunday, every priest should be with his people — including the Pope.
By Wednesday his condition had deteriorated markedly. He was diagnosed with an internal infection and kidney failure. He dismissed suggestions that he go to the hospital; for their part, his doctors did not insist on hospitalization since the Vatican was well equipped to treat his condition.
Thursday and Friday were very difficult days for him. Yet, on Saturday, he seemed to rally somewhat. When morning Mass was celebrated in his apartment, he was able to participate. During the day, he remained stable and conscious.
Shortly before 8 p.m., his breathing changed and he became weaker. The staff decided to celebrate the Mass of Divine Mercy since the next day was Mercy Sunday.
The main celebrant was Archbishop Dziwisz; a couple of cardinals were present, as well. The Holy Father received a few drops of the Precious Blood during Communion. Right after the Mass, he asked to say the breviary in anticipation of the Matutinum (Sunday morning prayer). This was his custom each Saturday evening.
At the conclusion of this, he started the prayer of the Holy Spirit — which his father had taught him so long ago and which he prayed throughout his life.
The Pope peacefully expired at 9:27 p.m. on April 2, 2005.
His body was dressed and laid in his private chapel, where he celebrated Mass every day, and spent so much time in prayer and contemplation during his quarter-century-plus pontificate.
The closest members of his household kept a vigil for his soul overnight. On Sunday morning he was transferred to the Clementine Hall and then to the basilica.
We have been contemplating the meaning of his life ever since — and probably will do so until our own days on this earth come to an end. Who was that amazing man?
Principles and People
Pope John Paul II was a man of prayer and meditation, an authentic person and a true witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. From prayer he received the strength and encouragement to continue his journey through life. He prayed before meeting with people. He prayed before traveling. He prayed constantly.
When he went on his trips around the world, he often said that he went not only to preach and teach, but also to listen and learn. He was often moved by the ways local churches lived out the Gospel in their particular circumstances.
John Paul was uncompromising on principles, but he respected the space where other people live. In this he emulated God the Father’s respect for our free will even when we choose things that hurt us.
Meanwhile there is a common perception of his holiness and the effectiveness of his prayers. Miracles were reported around him even while he was still alive.
On one occasion John Paul received a letter from a family in Indonesia. Their teenage daughter was in a coma, having been in a car accident three months prior. The doctors believed her condition irreversible. The parents begged the Holy Father for prayers for their daughter and included her picture.
John Paul took the letter with him to the chapel for prayer. He autographed the picture of the girl and asked the staff to send it back to the family. A few days later, a call came into the Vatican. The daughter had totally recovered. The father took a long personal trip to Rome to thank the Holy Father for this miraculous healing.
On another occasion, the Pope heard from a Jewish man from Canada who was fighting cancer. The doctors gave him only five months to live. Desperate, the man wanted to make a trip to visit the Holy Father and the Holy Land. But it was vacation time and John Paul II was at Castel Gandolfo. Along with his family, the man attended the liturgical service in the Pope’s chapel and asked the Holy Father to pray for him. When he returned home, he went to his doctor — who told him he had no signs of cancer.
King of Hearts
These and many other incidents of healing have been carefully recorded, for John Paul often took people’s written requests to the chapel for prayer — and his staff kept these in a file to which were added notes of thanks as prayers were answered.
Every Sunday John Paul celebrated a Mass pro populo (for the Universal Church), on Wednesdays for the Diocese of Rome, and once a week for the intentions of people who asked him for prayers. On many occasions during the day or night, he went privately to his chapel and prostrated himself before the altar in long, silent prayer. This, obviously, could not escape the notice of the staff. He used to say the breviary on his knees.
During the funeral liturgy, the signs saying Santo Subito (Sainthood Now!) were ubiquitous, indicating his holiness and the people’s wish for his immediate canonization. In the public opinion, there is a conviction about the sanctity of the Holy Father. Two conditions are needed for canonization: public opinion of sanctity and miracles, which are the signs of divine intervention.
Up to the 10th century, canonizations were made by public acclamation, predominantly of martyrs. During the Middle Ages, the process came under the regulation of Church law, with a period of time required before the beatification could begin. Up till recent times, a wait of 50 years was mandatory; now the Church may begin considering a cause five years after a possible saint’s death. We saw this recently with Mother Teresa.
The enormous crowd at St. Peter’s Square and in Rome itself was a public acclamation of the sanctity of the life of Pope John Paul II. Historically speaking, no individual, monarch or king had such a spectacular outpouring of love. But then, John Paul II was a king — a king of human hearts.
Msgr. Anthony Czarnecki
is pastor of St. Joseph Basilica
in Webster, Massachusetts.