Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Witness to John Paul II

I spent last weekend in Rome. It was supposed to be for an Art History field trip, but it ended up being one of the most historically significant and personally moving experiences I will certainly ever have. Before I left on Friday morning, I had heard that Pope John Paul II had received his Last Rites. Our dear Pontiff decided that it was time and that he wanted to spend his last hours in the Papal apartment overlooking Piazza San Pietro.

The next night, Saturday, the father of one of my friends called to say that the pope had died.

I immediately went to join the flood converging on Piazza San Pietro, the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, overlooked by the pope’s apartment. I heard the bells as well as the litany to Mary ending the Rosary. I would later learn that this finished the rosary that had been interrupted to announce the pope’s death.

When the Rosary ended, the bell stopped tolling, but the windows of the Papal apartment were still lit. Throughout the piazza, there were many different reactions. People were holding each other sobbing. Others were lighting candles and arranging them in cross shapes on the ground. People were waving Polish flags with strips of black cloth tied to them. Some were singing, dancing in circles and playing the guitar. A Jewish friend who was with me remarked how the form of communal prayer seemed to be the same regardless of creed.

At midnight, a bishop came and started a prayer service with a choir of nuns and another priest He explained that the pope had wanted to dedicate the Second Sunday of Easter to the Divine Mercy, and that it was fitting that he should die on that day. The readings for the Sunday Mass were read.

The service ended with the Salve Regina, just like Friday night’s Rosary had. Pope John Paul II had a particular devotion to Mary that was even reflected in his seal and motto, “Totus tuus,” I am all yours.

At this point, the entire piazza, tens of thousands of people, started clapping, and didn’t stop for at least five minutes. Then, the bishop called out, “Viva il Papa!” (Long live the pope), and the crowd erupted again. I kept looking up at the top of the Basilica where there is a large statue of Christ holding the cross with an arm outstretched. It was one of those comforting images coupled with the Bishop’s homily about not being afraid.

The next morning, my friends and I went to Mass and the piazza was already packed.

What inspired all of my tears was understanding what our beloved Pontiff had just done. He had ended his Pontificate and his life, in a way befitting to his entire message of life, and in doing so had taught us beautifully how to die.

Pope John Paul II in his last three days taught the world to die by example. Throughout his Pontificate, he had insisted upon the sanctity and dignity of life, from natural beginning to natural end. He chose not to return to the hospital, but to stay close to his flock, to show them that they should not fear pain and death. He asked that his windows be opened to hear the prayers below. When someone asked him why he had not retired because of his condition, he answered only, “Christ did not descend from his cross.”

Despite the fact that he could not easily speak due to his tracheotomy, his last message thanked those gathered in the piazza below. “I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.” It was his wish that the media know his condition. He wanted the world to see him suffer, face death with both certainty and dignity, and die. The moment before he died, he awoke during the praying of the Rosary below. He made the sign of the cross toward the window, uttered one final Amen and left us, being called home.

The front page of the Vatican newspaper can be translated as such: “Today, Saturday, April 2, at the hour of 9:37 p.m. The Lord called to himself the Holy Father John Paul II.” At the bottom, it said, “You have left us, Holy Father. You were consumed for us. In this hour – for you we rejoice, for ourselves we are in pain – we feel abandoned. But you take us by the hand and guide us with your hand that in these months we are made in you through the Word. Thank you, Holy Father!”

I realized that I was weeping over the most beautiful thing I had ever witnessed. Our pope, the only pope I have ever known, ended his life, a life that was lived only for his people suffering through his physical ailments, in such a way as to teach us one more time.

He taught us to die naturally, without fear. He asked for those in the piazza to accompany him in his last hours and thanked us for our prayers. His last breath was a final blessing for us before he was called home.

He now lies in state awaiting Friday’s funeral. I will not be going back to Rome for the funeral. I will stay at the Villa instead and watch it on TV. I would rather watch it alone and be able to see and hear everything.

In the piazza this weekend, the pope was with us. It is of some comfort to know that he was not far, that he could hear us praying for him, with him. Italy has declared four days of mourning. Flags in the United States are at half-staff until he is interred. The Vatican and truly, all of Catholicism, has nine days of mourning. This is the first time in my life that I have every really, truly, deeply mourned.

I pray for the Church, especially that God and our beloved departed pope guide the College of Cardinals in their upcoming Conclave. I may well be in Rome for part or all of it as well as for the subsequent coronation. The very thought confounds me.

I have spent the last hours with the only pope of my lifetime. So because I don’t feel worthy of these opportunities, or at least feel as though so many others should have had them before me, I have given you this.

Sarah Wappett is a junior in the College. She is currently studying abroad at the Villa le Balze in Florence, Italy.

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