The multiform, light-blue clouds filtered the sunrays of a bright, beautiful sky. Pope John Paul II’s last day at the Gemelli hospital coincided with Rome’s first actual spring day after a harsh winter.
The winter of suffering always leads to the springtime of spiritual joy and fruitfulness.
Together with 480 seminarians and priests of the Legionaries of Christ, I went to see the Pope at the hospital on March 13. On the little hill of the hospital’s large property, clusters of journalists patiently stood or sat, surrounded by TV vans, satellite dishes and temporary camera platforms.
“In these days of hospitalization here at the Gemelli, I notice in a particular way the presence and attention of so many agents of the mass media,” the Holy Father wrote in that day’s midday meditation. “Today I wish to address a word of gratitude to them, because I know that they carry out — not without sacrifice — their appreciated service, thanks to which the faithful, in all parts of the world, can feel me closer and support me with affection and prayer.”
When photographers saw hundreds of young men wearing black suits and clerical collars, they put their cameras to work. They were mining their gold.
By 11:45 a.m., hundreds of adults, young people and children occupied the sidewalks of the hospital driveways. Five minutes later, we heard the deep voice of Bruno Vespa, a well-known Italian anchorman, who was speaking on live TV about the numerous pilgrims, diplomats, civil and religious leaders who had paid visits to the hospitalized Pope in the last 18 days.
By noon, the Substitute of the Vatican Secretariat of State Archbishop Leonardo Sandri read the message on the Holy Father’s behalf to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square before the recitation of the Angelus. We heard his voice through the loudspeakers on the hospital grounds.
After the papal message was read, we recited the Angelus in Latin and received Archbishop Sandri’s blessing on the Holy Father’s behalf.
Then, we waited.
Our gazes were fixed on the hospital’s 10th floor. Would the Pope appear at his window?
A few moments later, the window blinds were pulled aside. In the midst of cheers and claps, John Paul appeared seated in an armchair, waving his hands energetically.
“Dear brothers and sisters, thank you for your visit,” the Holy Father said, with a hoarse, but strong voice.
He uttered a few words in Polish to greet 50 pilgrims from Wadowice, who came with their mayor, Ewa Filipiak, to bring him traditional Polish products and an album of photographs of his native city.
“Greetings to the Legionaries of Christ,” the Pope added in Italian. “Have a happy Sunday and a good week.”
John Paul opened his arms toward us. For a few minutes, he kept waving his hands and giving us his blessing. There was no rush.
People’s faces looked transfigured. I saw a few adults silently crying. “It was the best thing that happened in my life,” said a Spanish woman from Pozuelo de Alarcón, a city outside Madrid.
Cameramen and photographers shot their peaceful weapons quietly. People clapped softly and waved their hands slowly. Someone dared to yell, “Viva il Papa!” but cheers were limited and restrained.
People’s love for the Vicar of Christ is shown differently these days. Gone were the days of huge crowds throwing confetti in the midst of noisy cheers and colorful handkerchiefs, as when John Paul paraded on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in 1979.
Nowadays, the way to connect with the Pope is quieter — and perhaps deeper. It is the way old friends stay with one another, without saying much, because they already know each other well. An old friend’s physical presence is a way to say to his or her friend, “I don’t want you to ever die.”
That was the message people voiced to the Holy Father with their quiet visit on that Sunday morning.
It was the same message thousands of Romans and tourists uttered by lining the route between the hospital and St. Peter’s Square, when John Paul II returned to the Vatican in a minivan a few hours later.
Silent tears, smiles and cheerful looks met the Pope’s silent gestures from the minivan.
No need for words.
Approaching Holy Week, this type of love reminded me of that deep love that bonded a man and his mother almost 2,000 years ago.
Jesus was mostly silent throughout his passion and death. His mother Mary uttered no word. Yet both of them said much more with their silence than they ever said with their preaching.
As we relive the mysteries of our redemption, we should incorporate that type of deep love. Our silent tears might be the best way to express our love for the voiceless Vicar of Christ.
Legionary of Christ Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Regina Apostolorum University in Rome. firstname.lastname@example.org