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Letter from A Priest in Rome during the Funeral

 

6 April 2005

Father Peter Mitchell

Rome

 

It is impossible to describe the conditions in this city. As I write, helicopters are hovering overhead, traffic is backed up down the entire Corso Vittorio Emmanuele leading through the heart of the city towards the Vatican, and it is said that up to 600,000 people are in line to view the body of John Paul II, with well over a million having already viewed it. I just returned from the Via della Conciliazione, which runs from St. Peter's Square to the Tiber, and witnessed the unbelievable sight of three different lines converging, each one containing tens of thousands of people. Two of the lines go over the bridge, across the river, and then along the banks of the Tiber as far as the eye can see. Water bottles are stacked up by the side of the road by the thousands and were being distributed in a very disorganized way, in the hot afternoon sun. The line moves in stages and is now said to be over twelve hours long. All this to walk past the Holy Father's body for a few seconds at the most. I was in the basilica at noon today for a memorial Mass offered for the Pope and was deeply moved by the devotion and prayerfulness of the pilgrims who were coming into the church. Their exhaustion was also evident as I prayed at the side altar of St. Gregory the Great, dozens of people came and collapsed on the steps near the altar after hours in the line.

 

Last night, as I left the area around St. Peter's Square around midnight, I hopped on a bus heading away from the Vatican towards the main train station, Roma Termini. As we went away from St. Peter's we passed a bus about every 20 to 30 yards, each one jammed full of pilgrims. I counted nearly 40 buses going the other way during my five minute bus ride home. This was at midnight! The people are arriving at Termini station, getting immediately on a bus, and getting in line with their luggage. Many people are wheeling bags behind them as they make the twelve-hour march. Suffice it to say that we are witnessing something totally unprecedented in history. Yes, there have been countless papal funerals before, but this is going far beyond a funeral and becoming an historical event of unequalled magnitude. An older priest I heard from today said that there is absolutely no way to compare what is transpiring with the funerals of either John XXIII or Paul VI. John Paul II, the actor, has in death taken the world stage in a way even may not have foreseen.

 

This morning and again this evening a memorial Mass was held at the 'Altar of the Chair,' designed by Bernini in the 16th century and located at the very back of the basilica beneath the famous 'Holy Spirit window.' It was standing room only in the enormous sanctuary at 10:30 am as approximately 400 priests concelebrated Mass with five bishops for the repose of the Holy Father's soul. The Italian bishop who preached gave a powerful and spirit-filled exhortation to imitate the Holy Father's forgiveness of others in our daily lives, citing the example of John Paul's forgiving Ali Agca, his would-be assassin, and meeting with him in his prison cell in 1982. (I heard that today that Ali Agca petitioned the Turkish government to be allowed to attend the funeral but was refused because he is still serving his prison sentence.) I must say that while simply being in Rome at this time is overwhelming, the added unspeakable privilege of being a priest in Rome right now goes beyond my capacity to express. The fact that we were able to walk into a back entrance to St. Peter's Basilica at 9:30 this morning, vest in the sacristy, and process out past the Pope's body to celebrate Mass, while others waited all night to get in the church for a few minutes at most has not been lost on me. Several of us priests talked on the way in about the extraordinary privilege we are being given and the corresponding responsibility we have to share what we are witnessing with others for the rest of our lives (one of the main reasons I am writing!).

 

Now I must tell the story of what for me was the most extraordinary moment thus far in a week of extraordinary moments, the transfer of the Pope's body from the Apostolic Palace to St. Peter's Basilica. On Monday afternoon, I had just returned home from lunch, and thought I was going to have a few minutes for a much-needed nap, when a quick knock came on the door of my room, and two of the priests who lived with me told me that the rumor was out that all priests were invited to take part in the procession accompanying the Pope's body at 5 p.m.. It was 3:15 and we were supposed to be at the famous 'Bronze Doors' designed by Michelangelo at 4:30 wearing cassock and surplice. None of us had said Mass yet that day and knew that the evening was going to be unpredictable, so we decided to say Mass first and then trust Divine Providence to get us down to the Vatican through the colossal traffic jam at the Tiber. We headed to our little private Mass chapel at the Casa Santa Maria and celebrated the Mass for the Solemnity of the Annunciation, transferred from March 25 this year because it fell on Good Friday. I asked Our Lady to help me to be, with the Pope "Totus Tuus," "totally yours," and entrusted the rest of the day to her maternal care.

 

After Mass and a quick thanksgiving, we dashed out the door and grabbed the first taxi we saw and shouted, "Vaticano!" to the driver. We headed into a sea of traffic, and for nearly 10 minutes we went nowhere. It was now nearly 4:15 and we knew we were pushing our luck for getting to the Bronze Doors by 4:30. At one point we nearly got out of the cab and started walking due to the bumper-to-bumper traffic. As we sat at a red light, I looked out the left-hand window and saw Cardinal Ruini, Vicar General of the Diocese of Rome, in the back seat of the car next to me. He looked up and the three of us waved to him. He nodded in return, then the light turned green and his driver sped off behind a police escort. Behind Cardinal Ruini's car were three more cars carrying a total of seven cardinals! We decided we couldn't be that late if the cardinals were still rushing back to the Vatican for the procession, but we had no police escort and the clock was ticking. When we got about a mile from the Vatican, we encountered a new obstacle, a roadblock which was set up to divert all traffic to the north and around the bridge which goes directly to the Vatican. The three of us rolled the window down, shouted, "per la processione!" to the two officers, and they proceeded to wave us past the roadblock and down the empty Corso Vittorio Emmanuele straight towards the Vatican! We were going to make it! The bridge across the Tiber was completely closed, so we hopped out, paid the driver, and dashed across the bridge. A cameraman (there are cameramen everywhere you go around St. Peter's) started snapping photos of the three of us in cassocks running across the bridge. I hope they turned out for him! Such is the story of what is definitely the most memorable taxi ride I have ever had.

 

In a few minutes we made it to the Bronze Doors, were saluted by the Swiss guards, and directed up to a waiting room on the second floor, a huge 16th-century Renaissance hall with painted walls depicting different stories from the Old Testament. There were at least 2000 priests present. I will now try to explain a truly extraordinary moment that for me has captured the beauty, history, depth, solemnity and spiritual power of the Catholic Church more than any I have ever experienced in my life.

 

After forty-five minutes of waiting, the massive bell in St. Peter's Square began to toll. We could hear it clearly through an open window. Then the Vatican choir began chanting, in Latin, "I am the resurrection and the life: he who believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and all who live and believe in me, will never die." The Cardinal Camerlengo (Chamberlain), who oversees the Vatican during these days when there is no pope, began a prayer of blessing and sprinkled the pope's body with holy water (we could see none of this but only heard it by microphone being broadcast in the square). The huge bell tolled on every seven seconds or so. Then another prayer was read which I will translate here in full. These are ancient prayers filled with beauty, sorrow, and emotion at the death of the Roman Pontiff:

 

"Beloved brothers and sisters, with great commotion of soul we now prayerfully translate the body of the Roman Pontiff John Paul the Second into the Vatican Basilica, where he so often acted in his office as bishop of the Church which is at Rome and as shepherd of the universal Church.

 

"As we descend from this house we give thanks to the Lord for the numerous gifts which he has bestowed upon the Christian people through his servant Pope John Paul, and we implore him that he would graciously and mercifully grant to the Supreme Pontiff a perpetual seat in the kingdom of heaven, and the consolation of supernatural hope to the pontifical family, God's holy people who live in Rome and to the Christian faithful throughout the world."

 

Then, after a moment of silence: "Look kindly, O Lord, upon the life and work of your servant, our Pope, John Paul the Second; accept him into your house of perpetual light and peace and grant to your faithful people that they would eagerly follow his footsteps in giving testimony to the Gospel of Christ. You who live and reign for ever and ever. Amen."

 

Profound and beautiful words, asking God to give the Pope, who sat for a time on the Chair of Peter on earth, a perpetual chair or seat in heaven. Asking that as he leaves his house (the Papal Apartments where he lived and worked) he will be accepted into the house of heaven, and especially praying for the Church of Rome and the Papal household, grieving at the loss of their head, and for the universal Church.

 

Then the deacon chanted, "Let us go in peace," and we responded, "In the name of Christ. Amen." And thus the procession began.

 

There was never a moment when we could actually see the entire procession. In fact, I have no idea what was at the front of the procession. But we slowly began to move as the choir began chanting Psalm 23 and then Psalm 51 in Latin, with the antiphon repeated over and over, "The bones that were crushed shall be exalted by the Lord." The melody was in a haunting minor key that captured the grief and also solemn nature of this moment in a way that only Gregorian chant could. We went through two long painted hallways, then down an arched flight of stairs, through another corridor, down another flight of stairs, which turned to the left, and as I rounded the corner I gasped. We were at the top of the Scala Regia, designed by Michelangelo, and all the way down the cavernous arched hallway to the Bronze Doors, a distance of almost 200 yards, there were priests as far as I could see. We processed four-by-four  I guess that I was looking at between two and three thousand priests just in that moment. Down the stairs we went, step by ponderous step, as the bell tolled with finality and the chant continued, "The bones that were crushed shall be exalted by the Lord." After nearly ten minutes, when I reached the Doors, I turned back and saw priests extending far behind me. Way at the top of the stairs I could see the purple of the Monsignors and Bishops who were processing behind us, and just as we came out into the Square I thought I could see the first red birettas (hats) of the cardinals, who were nearly 90 in number. The view looking back up Michelangelo's Scala, the hundreds of priests and bishops, coupled with the chant and the tolling bell, was a vision of something out of the ages. I had chills as we exited the doors, descended the final stairs, and turned sharply to the right.

 

Out we came into the square, filled with 400,000 people straining for a glimpse. The procession crossed the Square under the Obelisk of Nero before turning right again to ascend the stairs to the main doors of St. Peter's Basilica. It looked in one sense like every other time people had gathered in those same spots to see the Popemobile coming by and to wave and cheer and yell. But this time there was complete silence from the people as the chanting and tolling inexorably continued. As the front of the procession came to the entrance to the basilica, the choir began the Litany of the Saints. Almost at the same time, the large Jumbotron screens on either side of the Square showed the Pope's body coming into view way back at the top of the Scala Regia behind the Bronze Doors. The body was carried by eight pallbearers of the Papal Household with white gloves, surrounded by six Swiss guards in full ceremonial dress carrying halberds, followed by the Papal Household: several priests and bishops as well as the Polish nuns who cared for Pope John Paul. Ahead of the body was the Cardinal Camerlengo and the deacon in a gold and red cope of exquisitely detailed design.

 

We slowly began ascending the steps of the basilica toward the towering central doors. The Litany of the Saints is so powerful, invoking name after name of the great ones who have gone before us in death and now share life with Christ in glory. Instead of the normal response, "ora pro nobis" (pray for us) we sang "ora pro eo" (pray for him). The Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels and archangels, St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist, and all twelve apostles were invoked one by one, and then all of the ancient Pope saints: "Sancte Clemensora pro eoSancte Fabianeora pro eoSancte Leo Magneora pro eoSancte Gregori Magneora pro eo." A dozen different popes, twenty-six martyrs, and thirty-four other saints were invoked. As we entered the basilica, it struck me that we were passing directly underneath the balcony where John Paul II had first been introduced to the world on October 16, 1978. Now he was entering the basilica for the last time to rest in peace awaiting the resurrection of the dead. The pageantry and drama of this moment defy my ability to describe, but I hope this description can give just a glimpse of what it entailed.

 

On entering the basilica, all the priests peeled off to each side and lined the center of the nave, forming two rows on either side three priests deep. There was a pause as the body was turned around on the front steps of the basilica for the people to view. Then each cardinal came in by one by one. I felt such a call to pray for these men who are now entrusted with caring for the Church and electing the next Pope. At the back of the line of cardinals came Cardinal Sodano, Secretary of State under John Paul II, and Cardinal Ratzinger, Dean of the Sacred College who will be the celebrant of Friday's funeral. And then as the bell kept tolling and the litany continued with prayers for God to have mercy on him, the body of the Pope entered the basilica. He was being welcomed by his priests who were ever so dear to his heart. I begged his intercession for many graces as he went by.

 

I must say that the appearance of his body was not pleasant (he has not been embalmed) and has served as a meditation for me on the horror of sin. We know from Scripture that death is the result of sin. We are all of us, even Pope John Paul, under the dominion of death because of sin, and only Christ in the power of his resurrection can free us from the Evil One. These days of mourning, falling as they do in the very beginning of the Easter season, are making me long for the resurrection with a greater yearning than ever before. My response to seeing the Pope pass by in death was, "This is not how it is supposed to be! We are made for life!" Certainly no one knew that better than John Paul II. And if he stood in need of our prayers while he exercised his ministry here on earth, how much more are we called to pray for him in a new way now that he has gone beyond the veil, even as he is undoubtedly praying for us in a new way now that he is with the Lord.

 

The procession reached the front of the basilica. The body was laid on the bier which had been prepared, surrounded by the Swiss guards standing at attention and in prayer. A brief Gospel was read from John 17, 24-26. Then a few petitions were offered and the Our Father was prayed, and the Camerlengo concluded, "Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen." And with that a deep silence fell over the basilica and the vigil of prayer before the Pope's body, still going on as I write these words two days later, began.

 

After the cardinals and bishops, all the priests were allowed to come up in fours and pass before the body. I genuflected, made the Sign of the Cross and held onto a special Rosary which I was given by a priest at the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy in Krakow, Poland, in 2003. We were not allowed to stop anywhere near the body, due to the tens of thousands of people waiting outside to come in (which became hundreds of thousands and now millions). But I found a quiet corner near the back of the basilica, knelt down, and bid John Paul farewell. There was such a spirit of prayer and reverence in the basilica, which has continued today even as 18,000 people per hour are passing by, which is, I think, a testament to John Paul II's unmatched ability, even in death, to lead people to encounter Jesus Christ.

 

I was asked by a reporter yesterday to sum up what this event means for me personally. My response was, "My youth is over." I grew up with John Paul II as the Pope, discerned my vocation by reading his writings, heard Christ calling me through him at Denver in 1993, followed him to Paris in 1997, to Rome for the Great Jubilee 2000, to Toronto in 2002, and I have lived with him for the last three years in Rome, often seeing him once a week at the Sunday Angelus address in St. Peter's Square. For the rest of my life I will remember that, when I was young, John Paul the Great was the Pope. It would be impossible for me to exaggerate the influence he has had on my life and particularly on my priestly vocation. He was and is my hero. This is true for an entire generation of young clergy who accompanied his body into the basilica on Monday night. My prayer at Mass beside his body today was that I would be half or even a quarter of the priest he is. I pray that God grant that request not only for me but for all of our priests. Let us pray for his eternal rest, and for the whole Church, that the gift and Spirit of Christ which John Paul bestowed on us through the Petrine ministry will continue to bear fruit in the Church for years and years to come.

 

PS. As of yet I have no idea where I will end up during the Papal funeral any prayers to Our Lady of Czestochowa that she will put me where she wants me to be would be greatly appreciated!

 

"Let us pray for one another, for that is the best way to love one another." -- Mother Teresa of Calcutta

 

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