APRIL 1, 2005: THE VIGIL SEEN AROUND THE WORLD
Tomorrow, April 2, Holy Thursday marks the 10th anniversary of the death of St. John Paul II. Having worked for the Vatican for so many years during his pontificate, and having met John Paul on at least 15 occasions, including Mass in his private chapel on three occasions, he was a larger-than-life presence in my personal, professional and spiritual life.
Thus, there is one week in April – April 2005 – that I will never forget, and perhaps even a few days before that during Holy Week when it did seem apparent that we would not have John Paul the Great with us for much longer.
Two days, two anniversaries, come starkly to the forefront of my memories each year. I will never, ever forget April 1, the vigil of John Paul’s death, and then the following day and night, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast he instituted, when he died at 9:37 pm.
The vigil, if you will, probably began March 30th when rumors of the Pope’s demise that very day began to circulate. His last appearance at the window of his study was heartbreaking: John Paul could not speak because of the tracheotomy he had had and his frustration was evident – as was the quickly declining state of health to all who had eyes to see.
Hours were long at work (I was at the Vatican Information Service, a office within the Holy See Press Office) because we were, even if not openly admitting it at first, on a death watch. Medical bulletins and other matters came to my desk for translation so that the press office could hand the world’s media bulletins in English as well as Italian. Spanish also became available but English was the main language (the first or second language) of most the world’s media.
There had been many such medical bulletins over the months, especially when John Paul was admitted several times to Gemelli hospital and most especially when he had the tracheotomy. (On his last ride home from the hospital, the van he was in passed by my building and I did take a photo but this is, as you can see, from the TV).
Saturday, April 1, 2005 was a very long day. Obituaries of important people are always prepared by the media long before their demise and Pope John Paul’s bio was no exception. We at VIS had been working on a bio in four languages for some time.
On April 1, I was given the following to translate into English – just in case:
“The Holy Father, John Paul II, died (today, this morning, this evening) at ……….a.m. (p.m.) in his private apartment.
“He was assisted by his two private secretaries, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz and Mons. Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, by his personal physician, Dr. Renato Buzzonetti and a medical team (and by Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, substitute of the Secretariat of State, by the camerlengo of Holy Roman Church, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo) and by the sisters who serve in the papal apartment.
“All procedures foreseen in the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici gregis, promulgated by John Paul II on February 22, 1996, have been activated.”
Both April 1 and April 2 were very long days, hours of uncertainty, visits to St. Peter’s Square to see the thousands that became tens of thousands of faithful who came to pray for a miracle and, in the evening to sing to the Holy Father, hoping he would hear them, especially his beloved young people.
My emotions were all over the place for days. The damn broke and tears really flowed for a long time late on April 2 when I left VIS. John Paul had died at 9:37 pm, we officially learned of his death just before 10 and at that moment we transmitted all the stories we had prepared for this eventuality – including what I had been asked to translate about his death a day earlier.
When all was said and done, I left the press office and spent an hour in St. Peter’s Square, crying my heart out for a while and then just watching people pray, sofly sing songs, light candles, hug each other, hold hands and so on. Just as they had done on April 1, the vigil of his death.
I want to share some photos I took that night (wish I’d had my good digital camera!) and two letters I wrote. I have preserved all the emails I received in those turbulent and very sad days.
Here are two letters I wrote on April 1, 2005: This first one was to a niece with whom I corresponded during the hours of waiting in the office:
Friday – April 1, 2005
Dear Beth,I am at work – it is 9:10 p.m. and I have been here for 12 and half hours – and did not sleep at all last night. Am scheduled to be here until midnight. Got to bed about 2:30 but was wide awake until the alarm went off at 7. These hours have been surreal – the worsening health situation, translating the press office bulletins and knowing information before everyone else, going to the square every hour or so – seeing the mass of journalists, the huge numbers of faithful pouring in non-stop, day becoming night – and a life probably ending.
What is so unreal is to see the countless numbers of people – and be almost able to hear a pin drop – the religious, awed silence, the respect for a truly great and wonderful man who is leaving us. I wrote a friend today that I have felt closer to God all day because I think that God is personally coming down to earth to get Pope John Paul, not the Pope going up to meet him. To think that soon he will be united with his beloved Virgin Mary, his own parents and brother and a sister he never knew!
I am writing you now in my office but will soon go out into the square to say my own goodbye – I am writing these words through tears, sorry! What an extraordinary human being, what a giant – spiritually and theologically and humanly and even politically! How many people the Holy Father touched, how very much he touched my life and made me a better person and better Catholic.
I am watching CNN – at home last night I watched Fox but it is not working in our office now. Fox wants me to do another “At Large” with Geraldo – said they really liked me. However, I’d have to be at the Fox spot 4:30 a.m. Monday morning! I have to let them know by tomorrow evening.
There are tens of thousands of people just yards away from me – yet I feel so alone. I just may have to go outside – I need that company. My cell phone keeps ringing every 10 or 15 minutes, however. I’ve done a few phoners today for EWTN and have kept them updated on every aspect of the day, the press office bulletins, etc.
The following letter is to a priest friend:
Many thanks for your package which arrived today – April 1 – is that providential or an eerie coincidence or what! We are waiting further word on Pope John Paul. I’m sure you’ve been glued to the TV. I was up until 2:30 a.m., went to bed for a few hours but did not sleep, came here this morning and will stay until at least 9 p.m. Have received e-mails of support and love and prayers for me and am trying to briefly answer those.
If you get EWTN I will be doing phoners for them each day and if the Pope dies and they come here, I’ll be doing live programs.
This sign says: “You are the most beautiful of Adam’s sons!”
I simply cannot imagine life without this man – nor the Church without him. I would not want to be a cardinal now and his possible successor – how do you follow a giant!!!! John Paul is a wonderful, truly great, unique God-threw-away-the-mold-when-He-created-him man. I do not want him to suffer anymore, however. I feel closer to God today because I know He is not bringing the Pope up to Him in heaven – God is coming down to escort him to his Kingdom. But I’ll still cry long and hard when he goes. I don’t think now is the time for a miracle. I must go. Please stay close. I feel sad and empty and lost – and he is still with us!
PS – Do not miss reading “Joan’s Rome” or my Facebook page tomorrow, April 2, 2015!!