Where were you at 9:37 pm on April 2, 2005?

If you were in Rome, you might have been in St. Peter’s Square, as I was, when you heard the announcement that, precisely at that hour, Pope John Paul II, after a reign of 26 and a half years, had gone home to the Father.

After finishing my work quite late at the Vatican Information Service, I joined the tens of thousands who had flooded into the square to pray for a miracle, but instead heard that the Holy Father had died, precisely on the vigil of a feast day he had instituted, Divine Mercy Sunday. Thousands had been in the square the night before when word had spread that the end seemed near.

Both nights, young people dominated the presence in the square. They sang softly, they prayed rosary after rosary. They lit huge numbers of candles. Were they trying to replace the light of their lives, a light whose name was John Paul II?

Banners appeared out of nowhere: “Pope Karol, your children embrace you”

“You are the most beautiful of Adam’s children.”

Yellow post-it notes were everywhere, glued to the pillars of the colonnades and the base of the obelisk, lamenting the Holy Father, weeping over having met him and weeping over having never met him.

“Your memory will forever be in our hearts.You were always one of a kind and you will be forever! I love you! Melissa S

This is the letter I wrote to a niece the night of April 1:

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 Catholic.

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.

Much love, Aunt Joan

St. Peter’s Square became the focal point for all of us in ensuing hours and days, right up to the extraordinary funeral Mass on April 8 when the wind – but we know it was the Holy Spirit! – slowly turned the pages of the Book of Gospels lying the Holy Father’s casket until it finally closed the book. The End.

And the beginning.

Cries of Santo Subito filled St. Peter’s Square, Via della Conciliazione and adjacent side streets at the funeral mass and reverberated around the world! Make John Paul the Great a saint immediately. Vox popoli! The voice of the people – the same voice that created saints, such as Saint Francis of Assisi – in centuries past!

The dome was lit up by the media on Janiculum Hill by what they call “blue lights” the night before Pope John Paul’s funeral (from my living room window).

St. Peter’s Square was the stage again in 2011 for Blessed John Paul. And for Saint John Paul in 2014.

Our hearts were broken 12 years ago today. But today they rejoice! Those of us privileged to have known or met him have a friend in heaven, a saint to whom we can pray every day.

Deo gratias!