Four years ago I was living in Rome. In 2005 Easter was "early" and it fell at the end of March. Being new to Rome and realizing I was living a once in a lifetime opportunity, I seized every opportunity that came my way to "do as the Romans do."
On Palm Sunday 2005 I was in St. Peter's Square for Mass. The piazza was crowded, but not overly so; the Gospel was chanted in Latin, and seemed to be about an hour long. I remember that because my knees felt like they were locking, the top of my head was burning, and the friend I was with was turning a lovely shade of tomatoe red. Yes, the late-March sun in Rome can do that!
What on earth made me think it would be a good idea to attend Palm Sunday at St. Peter's ?
I kept asking myself. I could have been sitting in a pew in the nice cool church of Santa Susanna, like all the other North American ex-pats, but instead here I was in the middle of this crowd, my knees and back seizing up, and John Paul II wasn't even saying the Mass!!! He had been released from hospital just a few weeks earlier and was too frail to preside over the Mass as he had every other year. Like a true shepherd though, he did not abandon his flock. At the end of the Mass the window of the papal apartment opened and he appeared at the window to recite the Angelus... at least that was the plan. I remember standing under the window and as soon as the window opened a round of applause and cheers went up from the crowd and people waved their palms (olive branches in Rome!!!) back and forth. JPII responded in kind, picking up his own palms and waving them back and forth. I remember being too close to get a good view, but being close enough to see his round face, topped by his white hat, and the green branch silently waving back and forth purposefully. He waved, we waved back, he waved again, we waved back again. No words were spoken, but we all got his message. He was leading, silently, the only way he could, but he was leading. There was not a dry eye in the piazza and yet, I don't think any of us in the crowd that day realized how close to the end he was, that he had tried to speak, and could not. I didn't realize that until I saw the film "Karol, The Man who became Pope" several months later and saw that scene dramatized from the point of view of those inside the Papal apartment. I just remember feeling tingles up my spine.
That week a friend arrived from Vancouver and I was absorbed playing tour guide. I did what all sensible North American ex-pats do and attended Tridium Masses at the American parish in Rome where seats are actually available, and didn't catch the news reports of JPII's deteriorating health until just after Easter. On the last night that my friend was in Rome we went for one last wander through Piazza Navona. It was perhaps just after midnight when we wandered back over the Tiber in the direction of Piazza Cavour, where she was staying. As we crossed infront of Via della Conciliazione we noticed a van parked at the foot of the street and one lone cameraman running, tripod in hand, down the street towards the van. We paused, we looked at each other, and with all the nonshalance of a wanna-be Roman I shrugged and said, "eh, there's something going on at the Vatican." That was the understatement of the year!! We continued home where I helped my friend pack and get ready for the car that was coming to take her to the airport. I finally crawled into bed in the wee hours of the morning and slept the sleep of the exhausted student on spring break.
When I finally emerged from my coma my cell phone was beeping madly. Unlike myself, my friend had been awake all night at Fiumicino airport watching CNN and BBC on the screens in the airport waiting areas and had heard that John Paul II was in grave health. I flicked on the TV, the computer, whatever else was around. How could I, the journalism student, have missed this scoop? Sure enough, Italian televison was totally focused on the state of the Pope's health. Suddenly every Roman was a devout churchgoer and Rosary prayer. The vigil began.
It was simply impractical to be in the Piazza all day and all night. There was studying to be done, there were chores to attend to, and quite frankly we all believe John Paul II would surprise all the doctors and pull through yet again. We were all very much like grand-children who believe, despite medical evidence to the contrary, that our parents and grandparents will live forever. We did, however, keep the television and radio on 24/7....just incase.
A couple of friends finally convinced me to accompany them to St. Peter's Square the afternoon of April 2nd. It was a Saturday afternoon in Rome. The sky was overcast and the temperature was comfortable. I remember looking around at the throngs sitting in the piazza, praying, singing, just sitting and thinking "MORBID!!! They're waiting for him to die? That's what television news is for!
" Yet, walking around the piazza I slowly realized there was nothing morbid about this vigil. Just as we had the week before, we were sitting with
him, holding his hand the only way we could as he prepared to make one final journey. We knew he was leaving, but we didn't know when, or how, and we just wanted to wait with him. We wanted him to know that he was not doing this alone. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever experienced. Beautiful but intense; I couldn't take it very long.
One of my friends drove me home shortly after as the sun was setting over Rome. We needed some distraction so we turned on the radio. We must have had the volume up too loud because we didn't hear the church bells ring. I got home and found everyone huddled around the television, tissue in hand, eyes red and watery, fixed on an image of the piazza where I had just been. "I was just there!" I blurted out. Five faces turned to me, tears streaming down their cheeks and I heard the television commentator's voice say, "The Vatican press office has confirmed, John Paul II has returned home." Well, there went my self control. We all sat and cried silent tears, not out of sadness, but out of sheer beauty; the beauty of John Paul II's life, the beauty of his death, the beauty of the love he gave his flock, the beauty of the peace he had finally been granted.
The next day my entire college dorm trooped to St. Peter's for the requiem Mass that coincided with the feast of Divine Mercy. In the surreal stillness that descended over the city, before the eight million pilgrims arrived, we said our goodbyes.