In an effort to finish this series “on time” I’ll be posting once this week and twice next week. Since this week is also Holy Week we will not post during the Triduum, giving us an opportunity to focus on the passion, death and Resurrection of Christ. In light of that, I’ve moved my Thursday post to Tuesday. Have a Blessed Easter!
April 8 dawned and the city was abuzz with expectation and excitement. John Paul’s last words had been revealed, “let me go to the Father’s house.” Beautiful last words which captured the spirit of this man’s life.
Rumors were that 4 million people where in the city for the funeral. The friends I had been spending most of my time with in Rome, including Sara (John’s wife) and a group of seminarians from the North American College, had decided we would all camp out the night before the funeral near the basilica and piazza. A few seminarians had lined up some good spots outside the South Colonnade of St Peter’s. We got there somewhat early and settled in for a long night before the police informed us we had to move, they were no longer opening the south entrance to the Piazza. We would have to go east to the end of Via Della Conciliazione if we wanted to get into the Piazza for the funeral. We began walking down a side street, Borgo Santo Spirito and stopped there when we realized we had a great view of the Piazza and unsure as to whether we’d even be this close if we joined the end of the line by Castel San’ Angelo. The police were telling us it was a LONG line to get in to the Piazza.
Though displaced and uncomfortable, the mood was still joyful. Night prayer was prayed, rosaries were prayed. We attempted sleeping, but songs and laughter made it hard. It was like World Youth Day, and I made the comment to a seminarian friend who responded, “its JPII’s first miracle and his last World Youth Day.”
In the early hours of the night ,one of the seminarians who was with us told us he had a lead on getting into the Piazza. So a crowd of seminarians, nuns and a few lay people walked up to the gate where our friend had found a sympathetic police officer. When some of the girls who were not wearing a habit in our group began to walk through the police stopped and demanded an explanation as to why they were coming too, then I and a few other friends not wearing clerics were singled out and we were informed “priests, nuns and seminarians only.” A few of the NACers, understandably, apologized to us and proceeded down the via and on toward the Piazza, but many stayed back, including the one who almost got us in. He went to work on another side street entrance to the via and, after a bit, came back with specific directions: “Two at a time, every five minutes and wait for the police to turn their backs as the ‘all-clear’ sign.” We sneaked onto the via and made our way toward the piazza. We didn’t go in, as we ran into many other groups hold spots on the street and though outside the piazza, we were able to see straight into it and were right beneath a jumbrotron screen set up on the via.
At about 6am, the Italian Red Cross came by, giving water (con frizzante) and breakfast to us and many others on the streets and piazza. Shortly thereafter the police took down the barricades at the east end of the via and began a slow march from the river into the Piazza, arms linked and holding back hundreds of thousands of people. We found ourselves awash in a sea of pilgrims. It was a surreal experience to stand still in a crowd of thousands as they walked by.
We got to know our neighbors as we settled in for Mass, some rowdy Polaks, a group of college students from Illinois, young Italians with guitars, a grumpy mid-aged Italian priest who glared at us incessantly, especially as we sang songs, shouted and laughed. A group of seminarians began praying the rosary and I joined them. About a decade in, the singing Italians joined us and we switched from praying in English to Italian. In between decades one of the seminarians asked the grumpy priest if he wanted to join us. Arms crossed, he displayed his left hand, shaking them as if to say, “I’m already praying my own rosary” as he scowled and turned away. This dude was now irritated by us… Another decade in and the Polaks had joined us as we now prayed in Latin, for their sake. It dawned on me how awesome this was: a spontaneous rosary prayer group from three different countries, all praying together.
As we finished singing the Salve regina, the crowd roared, as the video screens showed the Holy Father’s simple wooden coffin being carried from the nave of the basilica outside to the makeshift sanctuary on the steps of the basilica. Mass began with a procession of the Cardinals. The Papal Gentlemen, serving as the pallbearers, placed of the coffin in front of the altar, the book of the Gospels was placed open, on top of the coffin. All of a sudden, the wind picked up from the East. It blew down the street and into the Piazza. The pages of the gospel began to flip back and forth in the steady breeze. I looked at a friend of mine asked, “do you feel that?” He grinned back at me and said, “The Holy Spirit’s here, man. He’s HERE!”