Friday nights in Rome are usually frenzied with young people going in all directions, but not on Friday, April 1. Stores and restaurants closed earlier than usual and very few people were on the streets. Those who were on the street appeared to go only in one direction — toward St. Peter’s Square. As soon as people heard of the worsening status of Pope John Paul II’s health, a crowd began to swell at the square. The steady stream of people peaked the following Friday, the day of the funeral Mass for the pope.
April 7, 2005
2:30 p.m.: “Jesus Christ, you are my life. Alleluia … Alleluia … ” And so blares the music that accompanied the pilgrims aligning Via della Conciliazione to the St. Peter’s Square, as they inched their way to the remains of Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Basilica. Hoping to get into St. Peter’s Square for the pope’s funeral Mass, which is slated for tomorrow, North American College seminarian James Peak and I decided to scout the piazza area to know where to possibly camp out for tonight. Today, too, is the last day for the pilgrims to pay their respect to the pope. Yet their line appears to be unending; it is a sea of flags and banners, dominated by the red and white Polish flags.
3 p.m.: “Giovanni Paolo … Giovanni Paolo ‚Ä¶ ” Interspersed with the singing is the chanting of the youth. In unison, the name of John Paul II is shouted, followed by rhythmic clapping. The serene joy of the crowd is so attractive that I decided to join them on their way into the basilica. The group of Polish youth around me just came in this afternoon from a 20-hour bus ride from Poland, and after a five-hour rest in Ferrara, northern Italy, they headed for Rome. Along our way, the lamp posts on the Via della Conciliazione and those in the square have become mosaics of prayers, pictures, drawings, flags and flowers, and lined with lit candles.
7:10 p.m.: Our group has made it inside the basilica. For now, silence reigns. Eyes, often times with tears, were fixed on the remains of the deceased pope. Some pilgrims bowed and others genuflected as silent prayers were said. Yet one can not linger before the remains for too long; room must be made for the incoming pilgrims. The constant movement of the traffic was secured by the Carabinieri, the Italian police. As I moved away, my eyes were still locked on the pope’s remains. I suddenly realized that this is the last time that I’ll see him; he has been the only pope whom I have known so far.
8:30 p.m.: “Jesus Christ, you are my life. Alleluia … Alleluia … ” The campsite is just outside the Bernini columns, left-hand side facing the basilica. Ryan, another NAC seminarian, played the guitar and led our group in praise and worship. We are now joined by students from Loyola University in Chicago. Sitting in winter blankets, I bathe myself in the love that the young people around me have been professing for Jesus Christ.
11 p.m.: While some people were preparing to sleep, the Carabinieri came and asked us to evacuate the area. That side of the basilica needs to be prepared to serve as the entrance for the dignitaries tomorrow. As we left, I wonder if those dignitaries had any idea of the joy that they were missing by not being with the crowd around the piazza. Then, I prayed that may we all find new camp sites.
April 8, 2005
2:30 a.m.: “Giovanni Paolo ‚Ä¶ Giovanni Paolo ‚Ä¶ ” The hushed chanting of a group of Poles eventually succumbed to the stillness of the night. The Via della Conciliazione, were we ended up, appeared like a humongous baking pan lined with cannelloni of pilgrims in their sleeping bags. I, too, must now take some sleep.
8:30 a.m.: “Giovanni Paolo ‚Ä¶ Giovanni Paolo ‚Ä¶ ” Up on our feet since 5 a.m., we have finally secured our place in the square and have joined once again the crowd in their chanting. Warmed up by the crowd and the sun, we were shedding the blankets that we wrapped ourselves with while standing in line. Once more, the Polish flags were waved unceasingly but were now joined by those from India, Pakistan, South Korea, Samoa, Nigeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovakia, France, Italy, Greece, U.S.A., Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Panama and the Vatican City State.
Funeral Mass: “Giovanni Paolo ‚Ä¶ Giovanni Paolo ‚Ä¶ ” A clap of thunderous chanting burst from the youth as the fir casket bearing the remains of Pope John Paul II was being brought out of the basilica. John Paul II, the pope who so loved the youth, has even turned his funeral like another gathering for World Youth Day. And how his youth now return that same love to him! Oh, now I understand with my very eyes how Christians are to be known by their love.
Office for the Dead of the Byzantine Liturgy: “VIwa,nnhj Pau/loj ‚Ä¶VIwa,nnhj Pau/loj ‚Ä¶ ” And the chant is sung in Greek by the metropolitans of the Oriental churches as they prayed over and incensed the pope’s remains. How Pope John Paul II desired that the church breathe with her two lungs — the Greek and the Latin churches. The giant TV screens flashed a moving picture of the Greek and Latin fathers standing around the casket.
Final goodbye: “Giovanni Paolo ‚Ä¶ Giovanni Paolo ‚Ä¶ ” As the pallbearers held still the casket for the crowd, before it was brought down into the crypt, the chanting grew louder. In addition, the people were now waving their hands goodbye to the pope. And so I must say my goodbye to you, whom I first encountered at the 1995 Manila World Youth Day where you gathered 10 million. There we chanted, “John Paul II, we love you!” You so enjoyed the crowd that you were twirling your cane as you responded with, “And the pope loves you!” Holy Father, that meant a lot to us. We were in search of Jesus Christ, and you lovingly pointed to us that he already found us. Now, in his company, pray for us that we, too, may live in his love and claim him as our life. Thank you, Holy Father, and goodbye.
Edison Tayag, a native of the Philippines, is a second-year student at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. He will be ordained a priest of the Rochester Diocese in 2008.