Just a small body
Joining the tens of thousands that wait to see him - Tuesday, April 5, 2005, at St. Peter's
Rome, Simon Donnelly. Today I had the extraordinary privilege of viewing the body of our holy father, John Paul II. I feel slightly guilty that I was able to bypass the many thousands of people waiting to see him. But, in the end, I was able to slip in a side door of the basilica, and spend two hours near the papal altar, singing psalms, praying intercessions, praying the rosary, in the presence of the mortal remains of our departed pope.
I want you to imagine the scene: you walk up the Via della Conciliazione (the road leading from the Tiber to St Peter’s Basilica). You are alongside thousands and thousands of faithful, waiting to see the body of John Paul. They are very patient. Many have waited more than five hours. They have sacrificed a lot to be here: time, money, food, sleep. But still they wait. They know this is their last chance. Most are Italians (Romans, and from all parts of the country); others are from far away, especially from Poland.
Now, instead of joining the queue snaking their way up the Conciliazione and onto the piazza, you manage to slip around the left side of the Vatican City walls (Valle Circonvallazione), and enter the small Perugino gate. For this, you need a pass. Ours said Gruppo animazione (animation group). What a strange title! In other words, we were there to help ‘animate’ the faithful.
Spiritual accompaniment in form of hymns, readings and above all the rosary
But it’s really very simple. The Vatican runs a very classy operation. They feel that pilgrims and faithful should not be left entirely in silence as they wait in prayer. So, the Vatican has organised that throughout the days of viewing John Paul’s body there should be spiritual accompaniment, in the form of hymns, readings from Scripture and from the fathers of the church (e.g. Augustine), as well as musical interludes, and above all the rosary. Small groups have volunteered or been selected to accompany our Pope lying in state, as many thousands come to say goodbye to him in person. For two hours today, it was our turn.
I was very fortunate to accompany seminarians of the Almo Collegio Capranica this afternoon, as we entered a side gate, to be escorted by a young priest through the courtyard near the Paul VI audience hall, into the basilica. We sat in a few rows to one side of the papal altar. We followed music and texts prepared by the papal household. We only realised later that our voices were being carried by loudspeakers outside to the piazza, and all the way up the Conciliazione.
All the while we sang, the faithful streamed up the main aisle, very quietly, very reverently. And I was so proud of the Vatican staff that they did not hustle these faithful mourners out of the basilica after viewing his body. They let people sit and pray at the sides of the basilica, for as long as they wished. In other words, the basilica is a church of the people of God, whoever they may be: our church.
He defended the weakest in the world... and they come to honor him
Meanwhile, we could just catch sight of the man in red, lying in the centre, above the tomb of Peter, with his shoes sticking up. Nuns and priests and cardinals came past, to kneel in some pews set up alongside his body, even as the faithful approached in a stream from the front side of the basilica. We also watched disabled people in wheelchairs come to say goodbye to our pope. I think he would really have appreciated this: John Paul continually and unwaveringly defended the weakest in the world: unborn children, disabled people, the elderly and the sick. Many were brought in by family and by religious and even by nurses who are taking care of them. I saw a young Franciscan bringing in a very old Franciscan monk. I found this very moving. To be properly Christian, we must without hesitation take care of our weakest brothers and sisters.
Then, finally, after two hours of singing, praying, watching, we too were allowed a few moments to approach the side of the Holy Father’s body (his salma, in Italian), to pay our last respects. Seeing our deceased holy father gives us a chance to reflect on our own mortality too.
We knelt and prayed. And there he was. It struck me again: he is such a small man! We tend to forget: this man Karol Wojtyla was really quite short. But what a spiritual punch he packed! From his tiny frame, what wonders has our Pope worked in his time! And now he lies there, waiting for this turn to be buried in the grotto of the basilica, with his forebears. He wears a bishop’s mitre, and holds his staff in his hand. He looks peaceful.
It seems odd to a non-Christian, even to the Catholic: why give all this attention to a man’s body, when the man’s spirit is gone? This is simply the reverence given to the part of the man that we have left among us. Death is unnatural, a result of our sin in the world. Death separates the body from the soul, a separation that was never mean to happen. But Jesus came to sacrifice himself, that death might be overcome. And as the woman touches the cloak of our Lord to be cured, so we reverence the relics of our dead, that we might enter spiritually into their presence.
I looked up at the walls of the basilica and again read part of the words written there in Latin and Greek. Jesus says to Peter: "Do you love me?" After the third time of asking him, Peter says again: "Lord, you know that I love you!" And Jesus says to him again: Pasce agnos meos ("Feed my sheep"). Surely this is what John Paul has been doing for 27 years — caring for, looking after, feeding the sheep (you and me)?
As we walked away from the basilica, we looked down across the square, up the Conciliazione to the Tiber, over the huge crowds. Then we walked past Castel Sant’Angelo, the Holy Angel Castle, where the pope has been known to seek refuge in centuries past. We reflected on all that we had seen today. We felt a little bit like the disciples on the road to Emaus, which seems right for this Year of the Eucharist: Mane nobiscum, Domine ‘Stay with us, Lord’... It’s the plea of a family, of a nation, of the world: Stay with us and teach us how to live in peace! Stay with us and give us the courage we will need to build your kingdom. And the Lord is with us always: in every conversation his Spirit dwells in our midst.
We walked into the early evening, along the old access road to Saint Peter’s: Via dei Coronari (literally, Rosary Road). We stopped in at the beautiful Portuguese church of St Anthony (with more colours and shades of marble that you can imagine).
Everywhere here, there is another chance to experience a slightly different mood, to reflect on your day, to offer a small prayer for someone else that may have just popped into your head.
On the last day, the spirit of John Paul our pope will be reunited with his body in heaven. And while that day may seem far away to us, for God—for whom all time is now—it’s not far off at all. May that day come soon for all of us!
John Paul II, he loves you
Meantime, the world comes to say adieu ‘goodbye’ (literally: ‘until God’). One pontifical seminary has simpled added to their website: Adieu a notre père (‘Goodbye to our father’). Outside the basilica, as we exited, there is a giant sign that someone has put up, in Italian: L’unico amore: Karol Wojtyla (‘a unique/special love’: it’s ambiguous—the Pope was our only love, or he was love alone).
The square and nearby areas again has a faintly festival air: families are here, everyone is here, to say goodbye to their holy father, and really to celebrate his life, and to celebrate the life of our faith. It’s a beautiful mixture of sadness and joy.
At the edges of the square there are thousands of empty plastic bottles of water consumed during the long wait to get in the front door. There are even blankets discarded by people who have waited through the night to get in.
In the streets around the basilica, on all sides, there are signs of preparation for the funeral to come on Friday. The city of Rome has really risen to the occasion: they have laid on extra transport (free buses to and from the edges of the basilica area), hundreds of extra police, hundreds of doctors on standby, people distributing free water. And even practical needs like hundreds of portable toilets!
Every newspaper is carrying special supplements. Every political party has something to say on this. The cynic says politicians and others want to ‘cash in’ on this event. But the eyes of faith see that most people are expressing genuine sentiment and genuine emotion.
I think the Pope might be slightly embarrassed by all the attention that his death is causing. But he would also smile, and say (as he said to the youth before): ‘John Paul II (‘two’), he loves you!’
Note: EWTN has a live broadcast from St. Peter's, available also via internet: www.ewtn.com, go to Television, then: Live TV english (or spanish).
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