Sunday, May 1, 2011

Beatification of John Paul II

Before I joined the foreign service, I had lived abroad several times in Europe.  I spent a semester in high school and college in Italy, a semester of law school in Ireland, a summer in law school in Spain and in 2005, I spent about 6 months working as a tour guide in Rome (between college and law school).  Pope John Paul II died during my time in Rome.  Seeing his beatification today reminded me of all of my memories from that very historical moment in my life.

A few days before JPII died, my high school friend Sam came to stay with me for about a month.  It was just after Easter 2005 and I had been working in Rome for about 4 months.  By this time, I had been working as a tour guide, mostly doing the Vatican museum tours, for about 6 weeks or so.  I had been living in my apartment - two blocks from the Museum entrance and about 8 blocks from St. Peter's Square - for about a month.  The Pope had been getting progressively sicker for years.  It had gotten worse the last few weeks of Lent, however, because he stopped doing the Wednesday morning blessings.  He did, however, wave out the window for Palm Sunday (my sister and I were there) and I believe he participated in Easter mass.

Despite his deterioration, it still came as a shock when he passed away on a Saturday night.  Sam and I were in my friend Francesco's bar in Trastevere when the news came over the television that he had passed.  Partly for reasons of faith and partly for historical reasons, Sam and I decided to head over to St. Peter's Square.  As we walked to the Square from Trastevere, the usually raucous piazzas and bars were noticeably quieter.  This phenomenon was magnified when we arrived at the square.  

If I were to venture a guess, I'd say there were about 8,000-10,000 people in the square when we arrived.  Many were holding candles and the image of the candles flickering across the piazza is still ingrained in my mind.  Despite the several thousands of people, the square was eerily quiet.  It was so quiet that I began to hear this low gurgling sound.  I spent several minutes trying to figure out what it was before I realized that it was the fountains in the square.  I had been in that piazza dozens, if not hundreds of times.  I had never heard the water in the fountains before, unless I was standing right next to them.  That is how quiet the piazza was.

Over the next week, Rome quickly began to increase in population.  Polish flags and Poles were everywhere. People were camping in the parks near Castel Sant'Angelo and on the streets.  As the date of the funeral approached, we even had pilgrims sleeping in our doorstep.  An estimated 3-5 million people came to Rome during the weeks after his death.  (Consider that Rome has a population of 2.7 million people).  Millions of people waited up to 20 hours in line to spend 30 seconds walking past his body.  The line was so long that my boss's normal 10 minute walk across the square to meet for work took her over 90 minutes to walk around.

The funeral was held on a Friday - six days after the Pope died.  Sam and I decided we would try to go to the funeral.  Our original plan was to wait in line overnight, but the Vatican and the city of Rome prevented this by not announcing were the gates would be opened to let people in.  I used my professional knowledge of knowing where the permanent metal detectors were located in St. Peter's to find a set of gates I knew would be opened.  Once we made it past the original gate, we were in a mob of people that filled an entire street from wall to wall.  Although it was quite snug, it was never unpleasant.  Security had closed the outer gates behind us, so there was never any push from behind.  

The crowd was very joyful (this funeral was a celebration).  There was an old Italian woman who kept coming out onto her balcony to look on the crowds below.  She kept waving her hand in that gesture that old Italian women have perfected expressing incredulity.  Although I couldn't hear her, I am sure the gesture was accompanied by a proclamation of "Madaonna."  Every time she appeared, the crowd cheer and exclaim "Ciao Signora."

(I should point out, I have been to two events in my life that had millions of people and high security - the Pope's funeral and Obama's inauguration.  The Italians were so much better organized to handle the crowds, with thousands of volunteers, plenty of water for people and effective security entrance procedures.  For all the shit the Italians get for their normal disorganization, they knocked the organization of the funeral out of the park).

After we made our way into the piazza, we were surprised by how empty it was.  We had gotten really lucky with our timing.  The steps and the first 1/3 of the square were cordoned off for VIPs, but the piazza was not even half full when we arrived.  Sam and I staked out a spot next to the obelisk because we figured there would breathing room there when the piazza filled up.  The base of the obelisk was covered in flowers and home made cards and banners left there to honor the Pope.  Sam left a home-made Peace symbol key chain that his now-late father had made for him.  I've always thought John Paul II would like that symbolism.

The mass itself is mostly a blur.  The most ingrained memory that I have is when the pallbearers brought out the coffin.  A strong gusty wind began almost immediately.  The wind continued throughout the mass, until it died down immediately as the doors to the basilica were closed as they returned the Pope inside to be interred.  In all my life, I have never had a more faith-filled moment.  I truly believe that the Holy Spirit was there, physically blessing those in attendance.

Other memories include all of the "Santo Subito" signs around the piazza.  "Santo subito" means "saint now."  These signs - there were dozens of banners - are one of the reasons that Pope Benedict XVI removed the five year waiting period to start the sainthood process.  I also remember the young French family and French priests in front of us singing hymns in French before the ceremony, receiving Communion in the piazza, and how happy everyone seemed to be.  This was not a sad funeral in any way.  We were there celebrating the life and works of John Paul II, not mourning his passing.

A few weeks later, Rome was again abuzz as the city and the world watched to see who would be named the new pope.  I was working quite a bit during this time, so I never got to see the black or white smoke coming from the Sistine Chapel.  When the selection was finally made, I was about to start a tour of the Palentine Hill near the Colosseum.  A cacophony of church bells rang throughout the city spreading from the Vatican until the whole city was deafening from the sound of church bells.  As we listened to the bells, I saw a priest screaming down the street on a Vespa.  A nun, in full habit, whistled loudly and flagged down the passing priest.  He screeched to a halt and she hiked up her skirt and jumped on the back of the Vespa and they took off for the Vatican.  I encouraged everyone on my tour to head to St. Peter's to witness the historical moment of the new Pope being announced.  Unfortunately, about 6 people still wanted to do my tour, so I was not able to be there myself.

Sam, as we entered the piazza

Me, as we entered the piazza (really wishing I didn't have that cigarette in the photo).

The items people were leaving for the Pope.  Sam's peace sign is in the middle.

The view of the basilica

Many Polish flags

The crowd and the church

A view looking back
An aerial view of the Square for the funeral - from MSNBC

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