I have many memories of April 2, 2005, when St. John Paul II died after a lengthy illness and much suffering.
I remember the succession of news reports the evening before his death, people praying in St. Peter’s Square and the shared sense of concern and sadness that most people felt; this was not limited just to the faithful.
A few days earlier, on March 30, he made his last public appearance. It was a quick glimpse with no words, but only a breath. Amid all the suffering, there was also profound dignity, as he maintained his position and role, in any way he could, until the last moment. I was at home when the news of his death was made official by Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls on Saturday, April 2, after 9:30 pm.
The funeral followed six days later. There was a unanimous cry, and strong desire among people to see Karol Wojtyla made a saint. I remember this chant everywhere; in newspapers, shouting from the crowds – a continuous repetition.
Three million mourners descended upon Rome for the biggest funeral ever, and the capital city responded perfectly, with an efficiency never before seen. I remember the chaos around the city. It was impossible to take the subway enroute to school as Termini Station was sieged by pilgrims and people trying to navigate their way through the Vatican. A huge crowd converged at St. Peter’s Square, to give a final farewell to the beloved Pope. The day of the funeral, Friday, April 8th, was declared a day of mourning in Rome. Schools were closed and all eyes turned to the Vatican where the future pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, celebrated the funeral.
Among the many recollections I have of Pope John Paul II, there are two that particularly stand out from my childhood.The first dates back to 1997, a few weeks after my first communion, in the same parish where I received the Eucharist, the Holy Father came to visit. For us children, but especially for those of us who just recently received our first communion, there were special seats near the altar. What a great privilege to be in such close proximity that I had a chance to shake hands with the Pope, who greeted me with a smile on his face.
The second moment occurred three years later, on the occasion of World Youth Day at Tor Vergata. It took place in front of the home where I would eventually spend my wonderful years at university.
I remember the human tide that was able to fill the vast plain of Tor Vergata, as well as the steady stream of young people who passed by me on their journey to see the Pope that night.
As residents in the area, our family had received a special pass three days earlier from mayor Francesco Rutelli, a pass that allowed us to move freely in our neighborhood without restriction and among areas designated for young faithful.
I remember that long night of August 19th at Tor Vergata, sitting on the lawn with my father and my aunt. I remember a smiling and joyful Pope John Paul II and the contagious, youthful passion, music and incredible party atmosphere we took in.
For eighteen years of my life, he was Pope. He was a man, who unlike others, had such impact on contemporary history and changed the course of events. In Krakow, where the next World Youth Day will be held in his honor, the feeling of his presence is felt everywhere. One can sense his imposing spirituality, charisma, and ability as an incredible religious leader.
In 27 years of his pontificate, he has been able to accomplish a huge breakthrough for the Church, as well as to how to live within the church. It is hard to think that there might be someone equally decisive in so many aspects that will be a future Pope. It is hard to believe that there may be someone who could make a mark on world history as Karol Józef Wojtyla from Wadowice did.
Matteo Ciofi is an Italian producer for Salt + Light. Follow him on Twitter!