14 YEARS AGO, THE FUNERAL OF ST JOHN PAUL THE GREAT
Today, April 8 is the 14th anniversary of one of the most remarkable days in the history of the Church – the funeral of the beloved Pope John Paul II after an almost 27-year papacy, the 3rd longest in the Catholic Church after St. Peter and Pope Pius IX. He had died on April 2, vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday.
I was reporting on the funeral that day and the photos I took in the following slideshow were taken both before the funeral Mass as I walked from my home to the Holy See Press Office and then after the funeral Mass as I walked down Via della Conciliazione and around Pza. Pio XII and St. Peter’s Square.
Having worked at the Vatican for 15 years of his pontificate, I cannot forget the man, his works, his life, long illness, death and massive funeral. Those of us who worked for the Holy See were privileged to pay our respects in the Apostolic Palace’s Clementine Hall where the Pope was laying in state. He had been moved there on April 3 and then to the basilica for viewing by the faithful on April 4. Even there, we employees had a privileged entrance.
These pictures are from the vigil of the funeral as people paid their respects inside the basilica, day and night.
An estimated 4 million people were in Rome for the week following John Paul’s death – 4 million souls whom Rome fed and housed and cared for! Just over half were able to enter St. Peter’s Basilica to view the pontiff, often waiting in line from 5 to 19 hours!! Over 1 million watched his funeral on 30 megascreens set up throughout the city.
The Vatican announced that 149 heads of State and government were at the funeral – the single largest gathering in history of heads of State outside of the United Nations and that number included 4 kings and 5 queens and scores of presidents and prime ministers.
I live across from Vatican City and watched the incredible cavalcade of VIP cars as they entered Vatican City via the Perugino Gate to access the Diplomats Door of St. Peter’s Basilica. Motorcades carrying heads of state or government may enter Vatican City except for police escorts.
On a normal day the walk from my apartment to the Vatican office where I worked would have taken 8 minutes. April 8th it was closer to 40 minutes and I was lucky at that because every uniformed officer who in some way surrounded Vatican City that day and was guarding all access via streets and sidewalks had been given a copy of the official Vatican press office ID and told to absolutely let us through so we could work.
Rome was like no one had ever seen it: Car and truck traffic was greatly reduced or banned completely in certain areas of the center of Rome and banned in all areas surrounding Vatican City. VIP motorcades that brought dignitaries to the Vatican were allowed, as I said. Schools and public offices were closed. One could hear the constant whirr of security helicopter rotors and the noise of fighter jets as they flew around airspace closed to private planes.
The sheer numbers of the day were overwhelming – the numbers of cars, motorcycles, policemen, fireman – just about anyone who wore a uniform – was at or near the Vatican that day. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of faithful who filled every inch of space created by God and man.
For me, the most stunning image of the day was that of the Holy Father’s simple wood coffin on top of which was the Book of Gospels, What was so stunning was how the strong wind (the Holy Spirit for sure!) opened the book, gently turned the pages and finally closed the Book of Gospels as if signifying the end of an earthly life and the start of eternal life – as if justifying the countless banners that read SANTO SUBITO – SAINTHOOD IMMEDIATELY!
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, main celebrant of the Mass and future Benedict XVI, said in his funeral homily: “Our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude.”