Forever Young: Pope John Paul II’s Last Night

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.

Central Theme

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.”

Prayerful Pilgrims

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 her arms.

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.’”

Contributing Editor

Tom McFeely

filed this report

from Vatican City.