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March 27, 2008
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A Portrait of the Pope as a Young Artist by David Scott
It should not be forgotten that Pope John Paul was a significant religious poet and a lifelong man of the theater.

John Paul II: Disciple of Christ, by J. Fraser Field
While paying homage to the Pope, the secular media has been careful to separate the greatness of the man from the faith he held and from the ideas he preached.

John Paul II: Prophet of Freedom, by Harold Fickett
When he became Peter’s successor, Karol Wojtyla did not forget the Church’s commitment—and his own—at Vatican II to ground the Church’s witness in the freedom of conscience. And on The Day of Pardon, May 12, 2000, the prophet Pope John Paul II led the Catholic Church to an unprecedented act of self-examination, and closer to ‘the glorious freedom of the children of God.’

John Paul, the Great—The Misunderstood Pope, by Debra Murphy
Media pundits who've been harping all week on the Pope’s ‘strict adherence to traditional Catholic morality and doctrine’ have it wrong. The fact is, John Paul II forged one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries.

The Pope at the Garden, by John Zmirak
I was a 14-year-old Catholic high school freshman when I first saw John Paul II at Madison Square Garden in 1979. I remember thinking: 'What a charming man. A pity he has such old-fashioned ideas.’ Little did I know…

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Father Peter Mitchell—a young priest from Nebraska studying in Rome—found himself immersed in the events surrounding the death and burial of Pope John Paul II. In a series of intimate email letters he sent to friends and family, he gave testimony to the Pope’s influence on his life, and captured the details and emotions of that extraordinary week, when the world stopped to mourn the passing of a saint.

12:30 am, Saturday April 2, 2005, Rome

The Vigil
I have just returned from St. Peter's Square. To my knowledge the Pope has not died. The piazza was packed with people praying, many holding candles, praying the Rosary, or singing softly. I was especially touched by the quiet and peace in the square...there was a real sense among all those present that we were witnessing history and also a sense of solidarity with Pope John Paul as our spiritual father. The crowd was mainly young people—I sat with a group of high school students from Wisconsin who were here on pilgrimage for Easter Week, all of them kneeling and praying the Rosary. There was also a group of Italian students nearby sitting in a circle and singing softly. A few young women from France joined us for part of the Rosary. It was so moving to see these young people and their love for the Pope. One young girl, perhaps 15 years old, began sobbing uncontrollably and many other people were moved to tears as she cried.
At 9 p.m. several bishops led the Rosary in Italian. It was interesting that the mysteries chosen to be prayed were the new "Luminous" Mysteries which Pope John Paul himself created in 2003 and gave to the Church. Passages of Scripture were read, as well as quotations from the Holy Father's addresses to young people. One of the reflections quoted the Holy Father reminding young people that "the path to the glory of heaven always goes along the Way of the Cross through Calvary." The Pope in these difficult hours is living the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection which he has proclaimed so constantly and faithfully during his 26 years as Pope.
When he appeared at his window on Easter Sunday, I was also in St. Peter's Square, and there was again a real sense that this was a powerful and historic moment. Although he did not speak, the fact that he was determined to greet and give his Easter blessing to all the pilgrims was a sign to us of his love and unwavering dedication to his mission as head of the Church. As he silently blessed the crowd and made the sign of the Cross, many of us had the sense we would not see him again. It was his farewell to his beloved children.
We will continue to pray through the night here as we wait for further news. Here in our house, the Casa Santa Maria, (home to 70 American priests studying in Rome), there is a spirit of prayer and keeping vigil. Outside our chapel there is a statue of the Pope and this evening a small candle was lit next to it which will burn throughout the night, a symbol of our prayers which are accompanying the Pope in this hour of his agony.
There is an ancient custom in the Church to pray to St. Joseph, the Foster-Father of Jesus, for the grace of a happy death. It is believed that St. Joseph died in Nazareth in the arms of Jesus and Mary. We are praying that the Holy Father will be given the grace of a happy and peaceful death.
It is hard to believe this is all actually happening. I have wondered what this moment would be like. I am only 31 -- I do not remember any other Pope. I entered the seminary in 1993, when I was 19, after attending World Youth Day in Denver. He is truly my spiritual father, as he is to so many of my generation.
Tomorrow will be an interesting day. I will write more as soon as I can.

- Father Peter Mitchell

2:00 am, Sunday April 3, Rome

The Pope has died

After a day of quiet and prayerful waiting we finally received word of the Holy Father's passing. John Paul II is dead. It seems impossible that I am writing these words. This whole day has seemed surreal. My glimpse of it as follows:
The fact that he was determined to greet and give his Easter blessing to all the pilgrims was a sign to us of his love and unwavering dedication to his mission as head of the Church.
After leaving St. Peter's Square at midnight on Friday night, I was back at 6:15 a.m. Saturday morning. I woke up and could not sleep and decided the best place to be was near the Pope, both physically as well as in spirit. The square was quite empty at that early hour. A few Polish pilgrims held a sign that said in Polish, "We are with you." Some Italians sang quietly and prayed the Rosary.
At 7 a.m. I went into St. Peter's Basilica and celebrated Mass at the altar of St. Pius X, who was pope from 1903 to 1914. I began Mass with three people attending and ended with a group of several dozen people gathered around the altar. As it was First Saturday, I especially entrusted the pope to the care of Our Lady of Fatima, who asked that the first Saturday of the month be especially dedicated to her Immaculate Heart. It was on the anniversary of the apparition of Mary at Fatima, on May 13, 1981, that John Paul II survived the assassination attempt on his life. The Pope attributed his survival to her, and it seemed to me this morning that she was going to take him to the Lord on her special day.
The morning and early afternoon were spent at home with the radio on. There were no announcements about the Pope's condition for most of the day, and gradually we realized that this meant there would be no news until the announcement we were all waiting for would be made.
At 4 p.m. I attended a Mass celebrated by Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria in the parish church of St. Anne, which is located in Vatican City. Literally in he shadow of the Pope's apartments, I joined the cardinal in praying for the Pope and also for seven young people from Wisconsin, including my youngest sister Maria, who received the Sacrament of Confirmation from the cardinal. They had scheduled this day months ago and also reserved the church, and in God's Providence they found themselves at the center of history in the making. In the sacristy after the Mass I helped sign and stamp the certificates of confirmation, all stamped with the Vatican seal and dated April 2, 2005...they must have been the last seven people confirmed during the pontificate of John Paul II.
By 6 p.m. we returned to the square, which by now was so jammed with people that it seemed like the crowd which gathered for Easter last Sunday had multiplied itself ten times over. Cameras, microphones, and reporters swarmed all over the square, while the crowd sang, prayed, and waited.
I went out to a dinner held in honor of the young people who had been confirmed. We were on our way back towards St. Peter's when we heard the news that the Pope had died at 9:37 p.m. Rome time. I was actually standing at a bus stop a few hundred meters from the catacombs of Saint Callistus, built in the third century AD and holding the tombs of several of the ancient popes, including Saint Fabian, Saint Sixtus, and Saint Zephyrinus. I led the young students in prayer as we waited for the bus and thought that John Paul II must now be in the company of those great Pontiffs from the ancient church.
Taking the bus back to the Vatican took quite a while, as we expected. We were jammed onto a bus and stuck in heavy traffic. The students, all between 14 and 17, prayed the Rosary aloud on the bus and sang hymns to Mary and Jesus. Their devotion was so inspiring and obviously impressed many on the bus.
We arrived at St. Peter's Square at about 11:30 p.m. The entire Via della Concliiazione which leads into the square was a mass of humanity. People were covering the square, some kneeling, other sitting wrapped in blankets, others walking or staring at the windows of the papal apartments, which looked the same as last night... but the Pope is no longer there, only his body.
A prayer service began shortly after midnight. The Scripture readings were taken from the Feast of Divine Mercy, which is celebrated on the Sunday after Easter and was made a feast day by John Paul II, taking his inspiration from Saint Faustina Kowalska, a nun who lived in Krakow and died in 1937. The double coincidence that the Pope has died on a First Saturday and on the vigil of the Feast of Divine Mercy which he instituted is truly remarkable. I take it as a sign that the Lord has chosen the exact moment when he wanted to take John Paul II to himself.
At one point in the prayer service, one of the bishops who was speaking asked everyone to lift a round of applause up to the heavens. The entire piazza began clapping, and sustained this applause vigorously for almost ten minutes. It was quite remarkable. Towards the end of the applause, some young people began the favorite chant, "Giovanni Paolo!" and soon the entire square was calling out the name of our beloved father. The crowd then joined together in singing the Our Father in Italian. The prayer service concluded with the singing of the "Salve Regina" in Latin, an ancient hymn to Mary asking that "after this our exile" she will "show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus." A prayer that I know on this night has been answered for John Paul II. A light shone on the icon of Mary and the Christ child which John Paul himself put in the square after the assassination attempt in 1981.
About a block from St Peter's Square, all-night adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is being held at the Church of the Holy Spirit, which was dedicated by John Paul as the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy in Rome ten years ago on this feast day, Divine Mercy Sunday 1995. I attended part of a Mass there which was jammed with people. At the moment of the customary prayer for the pope during the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass, there was only a prayer for the bishops of the church and no mention of the pope...because there is no pope. Also at the time of the prayers for the dead, the priest prayed "for our brother John Paul...in baptism he died with Christ, may he also share his resurrection." That moment made things hit home for me.
It has been an exhausting two days to say the least. Tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. there will be a Mass celebrated in St. Peter's Square. I hope to attend and to continue to be a privileged witness to these momentous days.
Years and years from now, we will all be telling the story of these days. For each person I know there is a specific grace and message from God during this graced time. I know because I am witnessing an outpouring of grace in this city of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Let us all be attentive to what the Lord may be saying within us as we bid farewell to the great prophet and witness of our times.
"Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!" These were the words of the Pope opened his pontificate more than 26 years ago. Tonight as his pontificate ended Christ opened wide the doors to John Paul II. May God grant him eternal rest.

- Father Peter Mitchell

11 pm, Sunday April 3, Rome

The Feast of Divine Mercy
"Give thanks to the Lord, his mercy endures forever."
As this Mercy Sunday comes to a close, the words of the psalm response in today's Mass are a fitting way to express the cascade of emotions which have filled the hearts of everyone in the Eternal City on this day unlike any my generation has ever known...a day on which there was no pope. We are filled with sadness, and yet at the same time how can we fail to thank God for the abundant gifts of his mercy given to the Church and to the whole world in the person and pontificate of John Paul the Great? This day has been another panoply of images, indelible moments, and personal encounters leaving their mark on the soul. Here is how Rome spent the Feast of Divine Mercy, 2005.
The double coincidence that the Pope has died on a First Saturday and on the vigil of the Feast of Divine Mercy which he instituted is truly remarkable.
Today's feast of Divine Mercy was instituted for the universal Church by John Paul during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, to be held each year on the Sunday after Easter, in accord with the locutions of Jesus given to Saint Faustina Kowalska. It was ten years ago today, on Divine Mercy Sunday 1995, that John Paul dedicated the Divine Mercy shrine for the city of Rome. He chose to place it in the 17th-century Church of the Holy Spirit, just one block from the Vatican on the Borgo Santo Spirito near the Tiber River, a prominent spot in view of the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica. To mark this anniversary, a Mass had been scheduled weeks ago to be celebrated by a Polish bishop. I concelebrated that Mass at 9:30 this morning, which was attended by dozens of priests and over 2000 people who packed themselves into the relatively small church and overflowed into the piazza outside. The scene reminded me of the story in the Gospel of St. Mark when there were so many people in the house that the paralytic had to be lowered down through the roof. Picture a church in which every pew is squeezed full, every aisle is full of people sitting on the floor, every side chapel has people standing all but on top of each other, and all the entrances are blocked. One could have said it was standing room only if there had been any standing room. 
Holy cards were distributed, which had been printed long in advance, with the date April 3, 2005, and the quotation "Be apostles of Divine Mercy!" from John Paul II's visit to consecrate this church on Divine Mercy Sunday 1995. The Polish bishop (whose name escapes me and at any rate is very difficult to spell!) preached in Italian about the way in which Pope John Paul lived his mission of announcing Divine Mercy to the world. At one point he thundered from the pulpit, "Pope John Paul will be remembered in history as the Pope of Divine Mercy!" and the entire church thundered back in applause. At communion time I literally climbed over people and made my way down what appeared to be an aisle to give communion. The people could not move due to the crowd and so I made my way around, constantly being tapped, pulled, and begged to bring communion here or there. It was such a consolation to be able to being the Eucharist to the people on this feast. I was thinking as I did so, "Even though the Pope is dead, we still have Christ with us! The Church goes on! The sacraments do not cease!" Certainly we give thanks to the Lord for the merciful gift of his Church, which may be lacking a visible head but remains eternally united to her invisible Head who is Jesus Christ.
After Mass I remained at the shrine altar of the Divine Mercy image showing the two rays of blood and water streaming from Christ's wounded side distributing communion to those who had been unable to receive during the Mass. People continued to come up to receive Holy Communion for a good 15-20 minutes after Mass had ended.
In the sacristy after Mass I asked the Polish nuns if there was any English Mass scheduled in the church during the day, and when they told me no I offered to say one. They agreed to have an English Mass at 5 p.m. St. Faustina must have been working overtime on that one, because at first they had told me there was no possibility but then said they could fit me in between a Polish Mass at 4 and an Italian Mass at 6. More on that Mass later.
I walked the short distance to Saint Peter's Square where the first memorial Mass for the Pope was just reaching Holy Communion (it was about 11:30 a.m.). This scene was by far the most powerful one yet. I will try to explain:
The square was once again jammed with tens of thousands of people, extending far beyond the piazza and down to the river. The celebrant of the Mass was Angelo Cardinal Sodano, who was Secretary of State under John Paul II (all cardinals lose their particular offices as secretaries or prefects upon the death of the pope, as their only duty is now to run the church until the election of the new pope). Two particular details of the scene immediately struck me and shook me:
First, the red canopy which always stands over the altar when a Mass is celebrated in the square was gone. There was a simple altar and crucifix sitting in the middle of the stone pavement in front of the basilica at which Cardinal Sodano offered Mass. It looked so bare.
Second, the fourth window over from the right on the top floor of the papal apartments was standing open. Normally on Sunday mornings the second window from the right is opened and the familiar red drape hangs out of it so that the pope can speak to the crowds. But that window was closed. The fourth window was open, with nothing hanging under it, and inside all one could see from the square was blackness. This window marked the Sala Clementina, where the pope's body was lying in state, waiting to be viewed by the cardinals after the Mass. The stark and hollow emptiness of that black window is an image I shall never forget. It was something like seeing the empty tabernacle standing open on Good Friday. The altar has been stripped and the Vicar of Christ has been taken away.
I made my way slowly through the crowd as hymns were sung and communion was being distributed in the front of the piazza, probably only to a few thousand people, a mere fraction of the number of people in the square. The obelisk of Nero towered above the crowd. This obelisk was one of the last things seen by St Peter before his crucifixion in the Circus of Nero, on the site of the present St. Peter's Square and Basilica, in 64 A.D. That obelisk witnessed the death of the first pope, and now, 1,941 years later, it is witnessing the death of the 265th pope. Such is the depth of the Catholic Church.
I felt a desire to get up above the crowd, and so I hopped up onto a light post to the left of the obelisk. I perched on the ledge supporting the light for about ten minutes. It all started hitting me as I gazed around at the crowd, the bare altar, the black window, the dome of the basilica, the cardinals, the empty white chair by the altar, the mass of cameras and microphones lining the edge of the square. I started whispering, "Lord, have mercy on us," praying for all this mass of humanity gathered here and fixing their eyes on this place from all over the world. It was a moment in which it became clear to me that we are witnessing salvation history. This is a milestone, and the world passes it never to return. The world will never be the same again. It is undoubtedly a moment of conversion for countless souls, a moment of opening to grace which will never be repeated. These were the sentiments behind my prayer as I stood perched above the throng in St. Peter's Square.
I was called out of my meditation by two Italian security guards who tugged at my leg and insisted I come down. I looked down at them and said in the most distraught voice, "Ma non capite? Il Papa e morto!" (But don't you understand? The Pope is dead!). They looked at me and were a little taken aback. I apologized and came down and walked away. I felt like I was six years old and my world had been taken away from me, and nobody could possibly understand.
I walked closer to the front of the piazza and then stopped to hear the reading of the "Regina Caeli" address (this prayer is said at noontime during the Easter season in place of the Angelus. The pope always gave this address and prayer from his window at noon on Sundays). The archbishop who read it announced that what he was about to read was being read at the explicit instructions of Pope John Paul. He began, "Today we celebrate the Feast of Divine Mercy..." I realized in that moment that the Pope had known exactly when he was going to be taken from us and had prepared everything just for this moment. The words seemed to come from the heavens. I really lost it then-the pope knew, he foresaw this moment and left words to comfort us, his lost, orphaned children, he was still speaking to us from beyond the veil....
I don't remember much of the rest of the message. I think you could have collected a few glasses of my tears.
We prayed the Regina Caeli, and Cardinal Sodano gave the blessing. I looked up at the windows and remembered looking up at those same windows exactly a week ago during the Regina Caeli on Easter, seeing the Pope standing and struggling and blessing us in silence. But he did not come to the window today. I kept waiting for him to appear. Maybe the last few days all really were a strange dream. But no...he will never stand at his window again, nor will we ever hear his voice resound through the square giving the blessing in Latin, "Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus..."
I went towards the back of the square, sat on the ground near some students, and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours. The black, open window kept drawing my eyes. It captured the finality and emptiness of this day.
The stark and hollow emptiness of that black window is an image I shall never forget. It was like seeing the empty tabernacle standing open on Good Friday.
I started back to my residence for lunch with my brother priests, many of whom had concelebrated the Mass in the square (I had given my allegiance to St Faustina and gone to her church for the earlier Mass). As I made my way down the Via della Conciliazione towards the Tiber, I saw hundreds of people gathered in front of two Jumbotron screens on either side of the street, all jostling for a view and craning their necks. When I got to a point where I could see what they were all looking at, I saw the cardinal camerlengo (chamberlain) in the Vatican Apartments sprinkling holy water on the body of the pope, which was laid out in red Mass vestments which are always placed on the remains of a deceased pontiff. The picture was just fuzzy enough that I thought it was an old news clip of Paul VI or John Paul I being laid in state. I asked a man next to me, "Is that from an old news story?" His answer, "This is live from the Vatican Apartments" again was a moment which made things hit home. I took a deep breath and again shook my head in disbelief as I looked on the body of John Paul II. I saw a close up later and saw that the right side of the face was quite bruised and swollen. He must have suffered much in his final days and hours.
Lunch at our house consisted of exchanging stories of the last 24 hours...Where were you when you heard the news? Did you see this? Did you hear that? When will the funeral be? When will the conclave open? And of course, being a house of priests, everyone has their strong opinion and prediction about who the next pope will be!
After lunch, I had thought I was going to get a nap, but I ended up reading Italian newspaper coverage and then going online for a bit to read up on the latest and read what everyone is saying (even in Rome we are getting the latest from the Internet...this is the reality of the world we live in). There is too much going on around here to think of sleep. My eyes do not like me very much right now.
At 5 p.m. I celebrated Mass in English back at the shrine of the Divine Mercy. The church was mobbed (slightly down from the unbelievable crowd of the morning, i.e. this time there was some standing room) and I preached on the connection between Saint Faustina and John Paul the Great. Two points which I gave to the young people gathered there and to all who came:
First, this day of mourning for the pope should have happened on May 14, 1981, the day after the assassination attempt in which John Paul should have died. The fact that he did not and that he reigned for nearly 24 more years is a miracle of grace given to the world by the direct intervention of Our Lady of Fatima, on whose feast day the Pope was shot. Had he died in 1981, none of the young people at the Mass, many of them under 20 years old, would have ever known him. This means that every day of his pontificate since May 13, 1981, has been a gift to the world of the Blessed Mother. "Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his mercy endures forever!"
Second, in the novena of preparation for the Feast of Divine Mercy (said during the nine days between Good Friday and Divine Mercy Sunday), on the seventh day Jesus asks, "Today bring me those souls who especially venerate my Mercy." It struck me that this seventh day was Thursday, March 31, the day on which the Pope entered his death struggle...the Lord called John Paul to himself, bringing close to him his servant who more than any other has venerated and glorified his Divine Mercy. Christ's promise in the Diary of Divine Mercy is that he will protect these souls in a special way in the hour of their death...was this not seen in the thousands of souls who came to pray in St. Peter's Square during the hours of the Pope's suffering and death, who accompanied him on the Way of the Cross by their prayers and love? Jesus promises Faustina that he will make these souls who venerate his mercy shine even more brightly after their death than they do in this life...I think we are only beginning to glimpse the greatness of the splendor of this new saint. The Church awoke today in sadness without a pope, but it awoke in joy, a joy which I know will only increase as we begin to appreciate and fathom the greatness and depth and powerful spiritual presence of our new intercessor, John Paul the Great.
Normally, historically, on the day after the death of a pope the Church celebrates a Requiem Mass, wearing colors of mourning and praying the prayers of the dead. John Paul, ever one to break with protocol, has done something different. His death on the vigil of the feast he instituted meant that the Church had no choice this morning but to awake, put on the golden vestments of the Resurrection, and celebrate the Octave of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, singing "Gloria in excelsis Deo" and dismissing the faithful at Mass with a double Alleluia.
John Paul began Divine Mercy Sunday with Mass and Viaticum in the Papal Apartments. He is ending it in the company of the Risen Lord, Our Lady of Fatima, and Saint Faustina. How could the Church not celebrate, even as it mourns? It is liturgically a day of unbridled joy in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ who is Mercy Incarnate. And that is exactly the way John Paul the Great wants it to be.
"Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his mercy endures forever."

- Father Peter Mitchell

Wednesday April 6, Rome

The Procession

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.

I really lost it then—the pope knew, he foresaw this moment and left words to comfort us, his lost, orphaned children, he was still speaking to us from beyond the veil....
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 a.m. 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 Clemens," ora pro eo,"Sancte Fabiane,"ora pro eo, "Sancte Leo Magne," ora pro eo, "Sancte Gregori Magne,"ora 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.

- Father Peter Mitchell

P.S. 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!

Friday April 8, Rome

Arrivederci, Giovanni Paolo

There is a steady rain falling and the streets are empty: the very heavens are joining in the flood of tears poured out in this holy city on this holy day. I must tell you that I feel I have no words tonight, only tears. Today was by far the most difficult day yet. But I will try to give some thoughts and a reflection on my own experience of this day of the funeral Mass and burial of the 264th Successor of Saint Peter, Pope John Paul the Great.

The young actor Karol Wojtyla could not possibly have imagined a more dramatic departure from the stage that was his life, with the entire world watching.
Today had a finality to it that is weighing on all of us. It is finished. John Paul has bid us farewell and we have commended him not only to the earth but also to the Mercy of God and to the communion of saints of which he is now a part in a new way. All through this week he was still visibly with us: his body was on display for the veneration of the masses in St. Peter's Basilica, and even today during the Funeral Mass he was still physically in St. Peter's Square. The crowds applauded and cheered and prayed and wept in his physical presence, as they had so many countless times before. But then the final commendation came and the Pope's pallbearers, the same men of the Papal Household who had served as his ushers throughout his life, carried his simple wooden coffin from its place in front of the altar towards the great bronze doors of the basilica which will be John Paul's final resting place. The papal choir boys chanted the Magnificat, Mary's hymn of praise from St. Luke's Gospel chapter 1, concluding with a final "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit," and as they did so, the pallbearers turned the coffin around for a final moment of veneration by the faithful. The crowd erupted in applause, as it had several times throughout the Mass, and after a long moment, as the organ and choir rang out a fanfare of acclamation, the pallbearers turned for the last time, carried the coffin through the scarlet curtains and across the threshold of the basilica, and disappeared.

The young actor Karol Wojtyla could not possibly have imagined a more dramatic departure from the stage that was his life, with the entire world watching, not only the visible assembly of the universal Church on earth but also the invisible assembly of the angels and saints in heaven. If St. Peter's Basilica was constructed to be an image of the splendor of the kingdom of heaven, then the carrying of John Paul's coffin across the threshold of the basilica today and out of sight was the moment that most powerfully captured the spiritual reality that these days have witnessed: the world has lost a prophet, the prophet of our times, and we shall not be the same ever again. Doubtlessly the Church goes on, and the Holy Spirit will raise up for her a new shepherd to rule in the See of Peter, but this particular man and his unique charism and mission will not be repeated. And for that we both mourn and thank God for allowing us to have been witnesses of the witness. "The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." These words from the book of Job have been my meditation today, as well as Christ's final words to his apostles in the gospel of Luke, chapter 24, "You are witnesses of these things." Truly each one of us who have lived through these extraordinary days are witnesses to an event of biblical proportions, which calls us to strive more seriously to follow Christ and to proclaim to all mankind the Divine Mercy of God that has poured out such a flood of grace upon the whole world in these momentous days.

Today's Mass was preceded by an all-night vigil which involved the entire city of Rome. Over two million people covered the city and slept wherever they could find a patch of ground to unroll a blanket or two, keeping watch for the morning for which we were all waiting. At 9 p.m. last night a vigil for young people was held at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. I arrived about 9:45 and found the entire floor of the gargantuan basilica covered with young students, mostly Italians between the ages of 16 and 25. The overflow crowd (it seems at least 50,000?) spilled over into the piazza in front of the basilica, where speakers and Jumbotron screens allowed people to participate in the prayer. Several young people spoke, including one seminarian from the diocese of Rome who said that he realized that John Paul will never be "replaced," but he prayed that the cardinals will elect a new Pope who will follow Christ the way John Paul has done. "This is what we young people ask of you, our bishops and priests," the young seminarian said, "follow Christ the way John Paul has done!" The youth erupted in applause and then began chanting "Giovanni Paolo" as they had done so often before.

But then a new chant slowly began to fill the basilica: "Santo! (clap, clap, clap) Santo!" An almost universal acclamation has been heard from the People of God this week in the Eternal City: that John Paul II is a saint! It was a cry that was repeated several times today in the square, along with huge banners in the square reading, "Santo Subito," or "Sainthood Soon." At one point Cardinal Ratzinger had to wait several minutes while this cry of "Santo!" flooded the square before he could continue with the prayers of commendation.

After the vigil last night, the young people processed with candles from St. John Lateran to the Circus Maximus, in the shadow of the Palatine Hill where the Romans used to hold chariot races. This huge open space was transformed into a campground for over 100,000 people for the night. As we walked there was a profound silence along the route. Groups near us prayed the Rosary and sang quietly in French, Italian, and English. All along the streets the Roman people had opened their windows and lit candles to accompany us in prayer, and especially as we passed the Colosseum the sea of candlelight, song, and prayer created an atmosphere of abiding peace and the sense that we were witnessing one of the defining spiritual moments of our time.

I got home after 1:30 a.m. and was up at 5 so that a group of priests from my house could leave at 5:30 a.m. to make our way down to the Vatican. We walked well clear of all the main approaches to St. Peter's and found that at all the numerous security barricades the Italian police were most ready to help priests get down to the Square. This has been the case all week and has really been quite touching. Many of the priests from our house were able to attend the funeral Mass sitting in the front section of the Square. In God's Providence, for the last three years I have been member of a fraternity group for priests called Jesus Caritas, and one of the priests in my group is secretary to a cardinal who lives in an apartment on the top floor of the first building outside of the colonnade on the right side of the Via della Conciliazione. And so our fraternity group of priests was invited up to the balcony to have a bird's eye view of the entire piazza during the Mass. The view was astounding: we could see all the way back to the Tiber and the bridges jammed with pilgrims, up and down the entire Via della Conciliazione, and then had an unobstructed view of all of St. Peter's Square. Two years ago in Czestochowa, Poland, I prayed at the icon of the Black Madonna, Queen of Poland, that when Pope John Paul died she would allow me to attend his funeral. I think she answered that prayer today in spades!

With the help of binoculars we were able to watch President and Mrs. Bush, President Clinton, President Bush, Prince Charles, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, and many other kings and dignitaries arrive. It was striking to all of us what a diverse group of leaders and political viewpoints were represented in the diplomatic seats today: no other person could have gathered together so many dignitaries in such a peaceful and prayerful way. Various other church leaders, Orthodox bishops, Anglican and Protestant clergy, and leaders of non-Christian religions were present as well. Even in death John Paul brought the nations and religions of the world together in a way that testifies to his moral authority and spiritual leadership unparalleled in our time. As Pope he was truly the "Holy Father" not only of the Catholic Church but of all Christians and even of the whole world. His heart was filled with love for every human person, no matter how important or how small, and it was his love that was today returned by the whole world in bidding him farewell.

I want to conclude by pointing out just a few of the more striking moments of the Funeral Mass. First, the Litany of the Saints of the Church of Rome, sung as on Monday during the procession of the body into the basilica, invoking the intercession of those who have gone before John Paul and await his company at the heavenly banquet. Special additions to this litany were St. Maximilian Kolbe, the martyr of Auschwitz whom John Paul canonized, St. Charles Borromeo, the pope's baptismal patron, and, right at the end, St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, the Servant of Divine Mercy whom John Paul canonized on Mercy Sunday during the Great Jubilee of the year 2000.

Next the commendation done by the Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches, chanted in Greek as two bishops in ornate golden vestments incensed the coffin simultaneously. This solemn rite demonstrated visibly that the Pope's flock includes not just the Latin or Western Church but also the Churches of the East whose spiritual patrimony comes from Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria. He is truly the universal Shepherd. This moment had profound significance for John Paul II, the Pope of Rome who dedicated so much of his life to the realization of Christ's prayer, "That all may be one." As the mysterious chant filled the entire Square, the patriarchs prayed a litany of Divine Mercy, asking God for eternal rest for Pope John Paul, the forgiveness of all his sins, and a place in the kingdom of heaven with all the saints. The litany concluded with the following haunting words chanted three times in Greek, "Eternal is your memory, our brother, you who are worthy of blessedness and unforgettable. Amen."

And finally, Cardinal Ratzinger's beautiful homily, in which he meditated on the call of Christ to Peter in John's Gospel, chapter 21, when Christ says to Peter, "Follow me." Ratzinger showed how Karol Wojtyla heard Christ's call to follow him as a young student, followed him into the seminary and priesthood, then to the episcopacy and finally in October 1978 to the papacy. John Paul II lived in a powerful way the words of Christ, "Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it" (Luke 17:33). His life was completely surrendered to the will of God as revealed to him through the call of the Church. With Peter, he stretched out his hands and allowed himself to be taken where he did not wish to go (John 21:18). Said Ratzinger of the Pope, "He interpreted for us the paschal mystery as a mystery of divine mercy." The Pope's entire life was dedicated to proclaiming the mystery of Jesus Christ, born of Mary, crucified and risen from the dead, as the source of mercy and healing for a wounded world. And then a beautiful conclusion by Ratzinger: "None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing urbi et orbi. We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, that he sees us and blesses us.Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen."

At the conclusion of his Lord of The Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien records a moment of final parting not unlike the one we have all experienced today. The Quest has been accomplished, the last boat is setting sail across the Western Sea, and the Fellowship must bid farewell. Gandalf says, "'Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-Earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.'"

Today at last came the end of our fellowship with John Paul II on this earth. Now he awaits us on the shores of the Undying Lands. We weep today, but only because our love is so great. The fire of faith and hope burns through our tears and purifies them, the same fire which was kindled on Easter night and drives away all darkness from the valley of death in which we live. Jesus Christ, Redemptor Hominis, the Redeemer of Man, is the Alpha and Omega who says to us, "Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld."

Farewell, Holy Father! Godspeed! We will never forget you, and we will always, always pray for you, as you will for us, until we meet again.

- Father Peter Mitchell

Monday, April 11, Rome

Stories you won't hear on CNN

It is now Monday morning, and the rain that began on Friday almost immediately after the Funeral Mass continues to fall steadily. Remarkable, not only because of how these heavy, overcast skies rolled in at the very moment of John Paul's burial, but also because during the entire week when hundreds of thousands were keeping vigil during the Pope's last hours, waiting in line to view his body and camping on the streets, not a drop of rain fell. More than once I have been at Masses with John Paul II where dramatic weather timed itself perfectly to coincide with his speaking: a perfect rainbow appeared over Mile High Stadium in Denver on August 12, 1993, just as the Pope led us in singing the "Pater Noster," and a dramatic front swept through Toronto on Sunday morning, July 28, 2002, transforming a torrential downpour into brilliant sunshine just as the Gospel was read and the Pope began to preach. Even in death John Paul II has had a remarkable cooperation of the elements in forming the backdrop to his dramatic exit from the stage of life.

I want to share some of the numerous stories that are being passed around Rome this week, as we all take a deep breath and try to comprehend the monumental import of the last ten days. They give just a glimpse of how much grace was being poured out on the Eternal City during the salvific moment of John Paul the Great's passing, to say nothing of the grace being poured out on the entire world as it watched from afar on its knees. These vignettes follow in no particular order and attempt to paint a picture in words to the praise and glory of God for the impact John Paul II has had on the Church and the whole world during his final days.

Last week I personally met a group of students from Franciscan University of Steubenville (three bus-loads, to be precise!) who are spending the semester studying near Vienna, Austria. When news of the pope's death reached them, they spontaneously decided to come and get in line to view the pope's body. The school administration cooperated with the students' initiative by canceling classes for two days. They chartered buses, left Austria at 5 p.m. on Monday evening, April 4, drove all night, and arrived in Rome at 6 a.m. on Tuesday morning. They then immediately got in line and waited six hours to see the Pope's body (a relatively short wait given conditions later in the week). They then had a few hours free in the afternoon: a few came to Mass at the chapel at my residence. Then at 7 p.m. they reboarded their buses and drove home to Austria, arriving at 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning, at which point they went to class. 26 hours in a bus, two consecutive nights without a bed or showers, six hours in line, all to walk past the body of the Pope for a few brief seconds. I cannot tell you how inspired I was by the devotion and faith and love for the Pope (to say nothing of the love for Christ!) of these 20- and 21-year-olds. The future of the Church is bright based on this glimpse I had of the John Paul II generation in action.

A priest who lives with me went down early one morning (about 4 a.m.) and got in line. During the following hours as they waited together, he befriended a group of ten Spanish men, all university students, who had spontaneously decided to hop on a plane from Madrid. As they talked to the priest, it became clear that none of them went to church or practiced their faith, although as Spaniards all were baptized Catholics. When they finally went past the Pope's body, these young men all began crying, and then went to the side where they could pray for a few moments. At this point, one of the young men asked the priest if he could go to confession. After he went, another asked the same question, and then one by one all ten men went to confession for the first time in many years. The priest spent about two hours listening, advising, and absolving these students. In God's Providence there can be no coincidences. I am confident that this story has been repeated hundreds if not thousands of times in the last week on the streets of Rome. Priests were hearing confessions all over this town, in the most unlikely places (again, reminiscent of conditions at the World Youth Days).

A Polish nun who works as sacristan at our house recounted the story of a Polish man who, after viewing the Pope's body, went to confession for the first time in forty-five years.

An American woman who lives in Rome came down to the square on the night before the Pope died, more out of curiosity than anything, and found herself standing next to a group of American high-school students who prayed the Rosary and knelt in prayer for nearly three straight hours from 9 p.m. to midnight. She was moved to tears, told one of the teachers of the school that she had never witnessed anything more beautiful, and said that her entire life had been changed by those few hours in St. Peter's Square.

John Paul is bearing fruit in death apparently even more abundantly than he did in life. This should come to us as no surprise: Christ tells us: "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit (John 12:24). What is true of Christ is no less true of his saints.

Speaking of saints, one of the best ideas I have heard yet is that John Paul II should be beatified as quickly as possible, and then he and Mother Teresa of Calcutta should be canonized together. The crowd for that Mass might even exceed last week's!

Inside St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Grottoes underneath the main floor of the church have been closed since the funeral and will not open until later this week. John Paul was buried in these grottoes in the former crypt of Blessed John XXIII, whose relics were brought up into the main basilica when he was beatified by John Paul II during the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. It seems that the grottoes are remaining closed for a few days in an attempt to empty Rome of pilgrims and reduce the massive numbers of people who continue to visit the basilica. But the Polish pilgrims will not be deterred: each day there have been people kneeling at prayer throughout the day over the "air vents" which lead down to the grottoes from the floor of the main basilica. These round holes are covered with brass manhole-like covers, which have holes in them that one can partially see through into the grottoes. On Monday morning at 7:15 a.m. there were over 50 people kneeling at these holes and praying, causing a bit of chaos for the St. Peter's altar servers trying to direct priests to the various altars for morning Mass. The veneration of the tomb of John Paul the Great has begun!

Last week Sister Nirmala, successor to Mother Teresa as Mother General of the Missionaries of Charity, flew to Rome from Calcutta for the funeral. She came to the basilica to venerate the Pope's body and sat in the back row of the chairs near the bier reserved for bishops and cardinals. After spending some time in prayer, she was getting up to leave when she brushed the arm of Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope's personal secretary, who was of course at the Pope's side when he died and spent many hours in prayer as the body lay in the basilica last week. When Bishop Dziwisz looked up and saw Sister Nirmala, he jumped up, took her arm, led her right up next to the body of the Pope, and let her kneel there for an extended period of prayer. Certainly as Mother General of the Missionaries of Charity Sister Nirmala had a special relationship with John Paul II, but her relationship is in fact even more special. Some years ago, Mother Teresa approached the Pope with the idea that every one of her sisters would spiritually adopt a priest to pray for, in the same way that St. Therese of the Child Jesus, the French Carmelite who died in 1897, adopted two priests as "spiritual brothers" whom she prayed for throughout her life. The Pope wholeheartedly endorsed the idea, but then turned to Mother Teresa and said, "But Mother, I am a priest - who will adopt me?" Mother Teresa turned to her secretary and said, "Sister Nirmala will adopt you." And so last week, kneeling next to John Paul's body in St. Peter's Basilica, Sister Nirmala bade farewell to her adopted brother who was also her Holy Father.

Each day this week, for nine consecutive days or Novem Diales, a solemn funeral Mass is being celebrated at the high altar of St. Peter's Basilica, and these Masses are attracting massive numbers of Romans and other pilgrims. I attended the Mass at 5 p.m. on Sunday evening, celebrated by Cardinal Ruini, Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome, which drew over 30,000 people to the basilica with another 20,000 overflow crowd outside, a larger number than any Easter or Christmas in recent memory. The mayor of Rome announced yesterday that Rome's central train station, Stazione Termini, is going to be renamed Stazione Giovanni Paolo II. The response of the Roman people to the death of John Paul II continues to be astounding.

As the conclave approaches, let us not forget our serious duty to pray for the Cardinal-electors. A priest friend of mine saw an American cardinal in St. Peter's Basilica yesterday and called out, "We're praying for you, Your Eminence!" The cardinal stopped, grabbed the priest's hand, looked him straight in the eyes, and whispered, "Please!" I think that sums up the weight on these men's shoulders in the coming days.

Each cardinal will make the following oath each time he individually casts his written vote: "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected." This oath will be taken by each Cardinal as he stands before Michelangelo's dramatic painting of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Pope John Paul specifically decreed in 1996 that the papal election must take place in the Sistine Chapel, "where everything is conducive to an awareness of the presence of God, in whose sight each person will one day be judged" (from his Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis). Let us pray that each cardinal will act in a way worthy of eternal reward from the Lord in the coming days.

I want to close with an extended quotation from John Paul II about the dramatic days that are about to unfold for the Church. In 2003, Pope John Paul published three poems in a book called Roman Triptych: Meditations. The second poem is called "Meditations on the Book of Genesis at the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel." After powerful meditations on Creation (depicted on the ceiling) and the Last Judgment (depicted on the front wall), John Paul has an epilogue about the dramatic moment of the conclave, which takes place in what is perhaps the most powerful artistic space in the world. He takes the word, "conclave," meaning literally "with the keys" (a reference to the fact that the cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel), and gives it a spiritual interpretation, referring to the power of the keys given to Peter with which he governs Christ's Church. His words serve as a profound meditation to us about the spiritual power at work in next week's conclave:

It is here, beneath this wondrous Sistine profusion of color
that the Cardinals assemble;
the community responsible for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom.
They come here, to this very place.
And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision.
"In Him we live and move and have our being."
Who is He?
Behold, the creating hand of the Almighty, the Ancient One,
reaching towards Adam;
In the beginning God created;
He, who sees all things;
The colors of the Sistine will then speak the word of the Lord:
Tu es Petrus ; once heard by Simon, son of John.
"To you I will give the keys of the Kingdom."
Those entrusted with the legacy of the keys
gather here, letting themselves be enfolded by the Sistine's colors,
by the vision left to us by Michelangelo;
So it was in August, and again in October,
in the memorable year of the two Conclaves,
and so it will be once more, when the time comes,
after my death.
Michelangelo's vision must then speak to them.
"Con-clave": a shared concern for the legacy of the keys, the keys of the Kingdom.
Lo, they see themselves in the midst of the Beginning and the End,
between the Day of Creation and the Day of Judgment;
It is granted man once to die, and thereafter, the Judgment!
Final transparency and light.
The clarity of the events;
the clarity of consciences;
During the conclave Michelangelo must teach them ;
Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt oculos Eius.
You who see all, point to him!
He will point him out...

- Father Peter Mitchell

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

April 15, 2005

FATHER PETER MITCHELL is a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, and a doctoral candidate in Church History at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

©2005, Fr. Peter Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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02.09.07   troubledgoodangel says:
So, Father Mitchell, you are a 31-old who has discovered the greatness of the Polish Pope. Good for you!So did I, and many others. John Paul II was a great Saint, but not the only Saint in the Church on that day. There were many Saints at St. Peter's Square when the Pope was being mourned, but you do not write about them! Those were the people demonized, and marginated, and excluded from ministries. Those were the people banished from ministry for speaking out against homosexuality.Those were the people who were standing right there beside you on that Square when the Pope passed away, and they were far more "moved" than you were, but far less happy with the Church than you were, and I happened to be one of them. Before you were born, many of us, true Poles, knew Karol Wojtyla and know more about him than you ever will. And we appreciated him a thousand times more than you could ever understand. This is why I read with some scepticism the barrage of words which you have written out on the occasion of the Pontiff's death! It's emotional, it's OK ... but it doesn't say it all! Why have you become so fond of him after death? Why so suddenly? When the Pope was still alive, did you fight for justice, holiness, and truth in the U.S. seminaries and Catholic Universities as I did? I doubt, for you would have never been consecrated! And in Rome, had you have to fight for long six years just to survive at the Angelicum because the Church had denied me housing and scholarship? I doubt! How many years have you spent corresponding with the Pope as many of us did, since he became Pope? Did you advise him on matters of truth, as I have? Probably never! Were you alive when Karol Wojtyla worked at the Solvay quarry, when my grandfather was being tortured and killed at Auschwitz only miles away? I was. Where you there when Karol Wojtyla was at the underground seminary in Kracow, when my 23 -year old mother was killed near Lodz? I was. Karol Wojtyla became a priest soon after, in 1946, after only three years of seminary. Do you know how many years I have tried to be a priest now? I will tell you, 28 long years! After having done ten times more studies than Karol Wojtyla, the Church is still refusing to consecrate me! How many years have you waited to be consecrated? I venture to say that you waited less! This is why, when I was in Rome, at St. Peter's Square, although deeply moved by the Pope's passing away, I did not climb a column to vent my emotion! I simply stood there for hours, in silence, empty. I was not as enthusiastic and happy as you were, and if I am not telling why, it is only out of respect for John Paul II. But my unhappiness was with the Church, with many leaders who promoted you, but made my life hell ... but this is not the forum to speak about this, anyhow. What I am trying to say is this: Not all people are happy with the way the Church has treated them! Not all people are as enthusiastic about the truth which the Church lives by! But you do! Why? Because, like Karol Wojtyla, you only encountered the favorable wind! Is there anything wrong with that? No. God has the right to give Grace to whom He wants! But don't expect me to respect your writing just because you made it and I didn't! The bottom line is: and I repeat what I have said before: many people know thousands of times more about truth then people like you who have had it all too easy!

06.18.05   JoanLorraine says:
I am so glad that my first contact with this Website was reading Letters from Rome. This Priest has been blessed with the gift of communication that gave yet another dimension to the historic events surrounding the passing of this Great Saint of God - John Paul II. If it were not for JPII's passing, I would not have gone to our local Cathedral, just as an interested and saddened citizen of my city, to sign the Book of Condolances. While there, realizing I'd never been in this church before, not being catholic - or anything else - I decided to step into the main sanctuary and take a "brief tour" of it's own historic architechture. I have yet to take that tour. I was immediately struck by 'a Presence' which nearly doubled me over, I immediately began to weep, and felt only the overwhelming urge to fall on my face before the high altar before God and spend the rest of my life there. I know now that it was the Presence of Christ, present in the Monstrance, and the Holy Spirit present in the sanctuary. It has been 180 degree turnaround for me since. I feel as if I have come home after 55 yrs. of living on this earth without Christ. I am currently in the last few weeks of Veritas, already signed up for RCIA in September, attending Mass as much as possible, certainly Sunday's, but morning Mass as much as my work schedule allows, learning so much as the "new catholic" learning curve is steep, so much new stuff to memorize just to participate in Mass without being attached to books and paperwork. Started learning the Rosary just this week, what a wonder that is. I live each day in amazement at how this happened when I wasn't looking for it, but I think God was looking for me, and like the 'Letters from Rome' article says, when the seed fell in the ground and died, it bore fruit - and that was what John Paul II accomplished for me. I have always admired and respected him as a politician, world leader, peace keeper, and as an aside - leader of the catholic church. I believe he is smiling at my, and many other stories like mine I'm sure. He is my hero now too. I send prayers his way already. And God is my Salvation.

04.21.05   Felicity says:
How extraordinarily moving. Thank you, Father Mitchell. It brought a smile to my face that you commented, "Even in Rome, we're getting the latest news from the internet." In these days since John Paul II's final illness, I've come to think that the internet may be the most powerful tool placed at the Church's disposal since the printing press. I used to deplore the eradication of the time lag between event and dissemination. I used to believe that we don't really need the news NOW; we would do better to wait for considered, deliberate reportage. However, as I devoured the coverage of the Holy Father's passing and then of his funeral, the immediacy of the updates -- and, crucially, the wide variety of voices, including yours, that one can find on the internet -- gave me a sense of truly witnessing events that television, with its spurious "stories" and annoying soundbites, has never offered.Of course, I DIDN'T witness the funeral. Let's not lose sight of reality. I live on the other side of the world (in a country impervious to Christianity, where the Pope barely makes it into the headlines). But the internet made me aware of what was going on while it was going on, so that I could weep and pray in the same subjective timeframe as my brothers and sisters all over the world. I had never before felt that I was actually sharing in an event in a distant country. Even the live coverage of 9/11, I remember, was merely exciting -- it didn't touch my emotions at all, much less palpably affect my soul. But the Pope's funeral was different. The explicit reminders from our bishops and cardinals that this was an event affecting the entire Church underlined its mystical dimension. When Vatican spokesmanJoaquin Navarro-Valls said of the outcome of the conclave, "I prefer not to know. It will be an event that we will all live together, at the same level," I think that he meant "all" quite literally. This prophecy would have come true with or without instant communications -- the Holy Spirit works among us unseen and sometimes unfelt -- but new technologies allowed it to come true almost literally, affording us rich opportunities for subjective gratitude, veneration, and prayer. This possibility of living an event together, simultaneously and CONSCIOUSLY, is unprecedented in our communion, and I think it can only enhance it. After all, what is a Christian community but a group of people bound together in subjective time, sharing information and witnessing God's works together? I'm a convert. I think the internet has potential to expand our subjective communion (as it exists in each individual's consciousness) from local communities to the worldwide community. Godspy itself, for that matter, is helping to realize this potential -- the potential of communications technology in all its forms to galvanize Christ's mystical body, allowing all its parts, all of us, to breathe and move together, as a subjectively enfleshed body, simultaneously.

04.17.05   bourtonhill says:
Thank you for posting this. My husband and I (who are Protestants) read it with great interest as we do not watch television. It gave us a view filtered through believing eyes, one that will linger in our memories for a long time. We rejoice in the witness of this priest and for John Paul the Great.

04.15.05   Godspy says:
Father Peter Mitchell—a young priest from Nebraska studying in Rome—found himself immersed in the events surrounding the death and burial of Pope John Paul II. In a series of intimate email letters he sent to friends and family, he gave testimony to the Pope’s influence on his life, and captured the details and emotions of that extraordinary week, when the world stopped to mourn the passing of a saint.

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