Thursday, April 07, 2005

A View from the Square

Memorial of St. John Baptist de la Salle

Here is the account of the priest brother of one of my sister's friend's... friend who was among those gathered at St. Peter's Saturday night.

Dear Family and Friends,

I have received so many emails asking me to describe my experiences of these past few days -- I simply tried to write a general diary of what has happened-- it is too long -- and please excuse my inability to respond to all individually:

Saturday night I was in the square as Our Holy Father died. Several thousand people had been vigiling and praying in the square since Friday. Many came specifically to pray the Rosary at 9 p.m. Saturday evening with some of the Cardinals. We prayed the Joyful mysteries which were interspersed with readings from scripture which explains why the Rosary took about 45 minutes. At the end of the Rosary the Archbishop told us we were welcome to stay and continue praying for the Holy Father and that there would be another prayer service at midnight. I told the Students from the University of St. Thomas, whom I was with, that I was going to head home. As I began to leave the square I looked up at the Papal Palace again only to see a bunch of lights come on, at the level of the Papal apartments. I thought that maybe someone was entering, which could mean it was the Cardinal coming to certify the Pope's death. So I stayed put in the square, about 10 minutes later an Archbishop came back to the microphone and said, "Please pray with me" and started praying Hail Mary's. After 1 decade and a Glory Be. Cardinal Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, came on and announced, at 9:37, while we were just finishing the Rosary in the square Our Holy Father passed from this life to the next. Then he invited us all to pray, and began to sing the Salve Regina. We knelt in the square and then for about 3 minutes 100,000 people were absolutely silent. Then the Cardinal began the "De Profundis," psalm 130, which is the traditional prayer to pray when you here someone dies, "Out of the depths, I cry to you Oh Lord..." Then he said, "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine" (Eternal rest grant unto him Oh Lord), and we responded, "et Lux perpetua luceat ei" (and let perpetual light shine upon him). Then we began to pray another Rosary, the Glorious Mysteries. At the end of this Rosary they announced that there would be a memorial mass at 10:30 a.m. the next morning.

The Italian newspapers (maybe the US as well but I did not see it) reported John Paul II's last hours. At 8 p.m. the vigil mass for Divine Mercy was celebrated in his room, he received communion. Then they opened the window so he could hear the Rosary being prayed in the square. Near the end of the Rosary he lifted his hand towards the window and gave a blessing, then at the end of the prayer, with great effort he said, "Amen," and died afterwards.

The next morning I was able to concelebrate the mass where about 40 of the Cardinals were present. There were several dozen bishops and a few hundred priests who concelebrated. The Piazza was full and also part of the Via de Conciliazione, perhaps 200,000 people? I said to the priest next to me at one point in the mass, even though the Piazza is full it is profoundly empty. Our Holy Father's presence is what always filled the Piazza, even though Cardinal Sodano gave a beautiful homily, the absence of Our Father was palpable. I was most moved when at the end of Mass one of the Archbishops came forward and said that he had with him a copy of the Regina Caeli address which Our Holy had prepared for Mercy Sunday before he died. Here were John Paul II's last public words, written before he died and now it was as if he was speaking to us from heaven.

Our Holy Father spoke as he always did -- addressing not just Christians but the world -- and praying to Our Lord on behalf of the entire world. Here is the Translation from Zenit:

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

1. The joyful Easter Alleluia resounds also today. Today's Gospel page of St. John underlines that the Risen One, on the night of that day, appeared to the Apostles and "showed them his hands and his side" (John 20:20), that is, the signs of the painful Passion printed indelibly on his body also after his Resurrection. Those glorious wounds, which eight days later he made the incredulous Thomas touch, reveal the mercy of God "for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (John 3:16).

This mystery of love is at the heart of today's liturgy, Sunday "in Albis," dedicated to the worship of Divine Mercy.

2. To humanity, which at times seems to be lost and dominated by the power of evil, egoism and fear, the risen Lord offers as a gift his love that forgives, reconciles and reopens the spirit to hope. It is love that converts hearts and gives peace. How much need the world has to understand and accept Divine Mercy!

Lord, who with [your] Death and Resurrection reveal the love of the Father, we believe in you and with confidence repeat to you today: Jesus, I trust in you, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

3. The liturgical solemnity of the Annunciation, which we celebrate tomorrow, leads us to contemplate with Mary's eyes the enormous mystery of this merciful love that arises from Christ's heart. With her help, we can understand the true meaning of paschal joy, which is based on this certainty: The One whom the Virgin carried in her womb, who suffered and died for us, has truly risen. Alleluia!
Of course Our Holy Father himself instituted the feast of Divine Mercy and was intimately connected with St. Faustina. He personally prepared her cause for canonization as Archbishop of Krakow and then sent it to Rome, having no idea that when it came time for her beatification and canonization he would be the Pope. Of course Our Holy Father's life was intimately tied up with Fatima as well. He was the central figure of the Third Secret of Fatima which predicted his assassination attempt and his intimate role in the fall of Communism for which Our Lady of Fatima asked us to pray. It is amazing that he died on the only day when these two devotions came together -- First Saturday which was also the Vigil of Divine Mercy.

However the most moving part of the whole experience so far happened today. Things are happening very quickly in Rome and hundreds of thousands of people are descending on the city. At the North American College we received a phone call at 3:30 p.m. that said any priest who would come to the Papal Palace at 4:30 with cassock and surplice could join in the procession of the body of the Holy Father from the Papal Palace through St. Peter's square to the Basilica. We rushed to arrive at the Vatican because of so many streets being closed and police blockades controlling the crowds. When we arrived we entered through the Bronze Doors guarded by the Swiss guards into the Papal palace which is itself a sight to behold. I estimate more than 1,000 priests and seminarians were present, more than 100 Bishops and about 70 or 80 cardinals. The Italian newspapers this morning reported over 500,000 people were already standing in line to view the body of the Pope. The prayers began in the Papal Palace broadcast over PA system and Television to the whole square and the Via del Conciliazione (street which runs down to the Vatican). The prayers themselves lead by the Cardinal Papal Chamberlain were so moving (my translation):

"My dear brothers and sisters, with great feeling of soul we accompany with our prayers the body of the Roman Pontiff, John Paul II, into the Vatican Basilica where he so often exercised his ministry as Bishop of the Roman Church and Pastor of the Universal Church. As we leave this home (the papal palace) we give thanks to the Lord for the many gifts which he has generously granted through his servant John Paul to the Christian people, and we beseech him that through his mercy and goodness he may grant to our Supreme Pontiff a perpetual seat (sedem which is the name for a Bishops chair) in heaven, and that the family of the pontiff, the people of the Holy Church of Rome and the Christian faithful dispersed throughout the world may be brought the solace of eternal hope."

"Look upon the life and works your Servant our Pope John Paul II, Lord with goodness and receive him in to the dwelling of light and peace and grant that your faithful ones, following with fervor in his footsteps, may be given the witness of the Gospel of Christ who lives and reigns forever and ever."
Then we began the procession chanting psalms 23, 130, and 51 echoing throughout the whole Piazza, Palace and Basilica. As we processed down Bernini's stair case into the long hall way of the Bronze doors the procession stretched as far forwards and backwards as I could see. When we got out into the Piazza I could finally see the Holy Father's body on the Television screens coming down the same stairs I had just processed. I was quite overcome at this image of being privileged to lead my Father to his home. It was as if we were all giving back to God the incredible gift that had been given to us of Our Holy Father. People lined the whole procession way many in tears, St. Peter's bell tolled and we began the Litany of Saints. Praying especially to all the saints who were Popes for the intercession. Going up the main stairs into the central doors of the Basilica we were lined by the Swiss guard and we finally passed into the Basilica itself which was empty except for those of us in the procession. We then lined both sides of the center isle first the Bishops then the Cardinals passed between us and then Our Holy Father being carried by his personal attendants. How many times I had lined the isle of passage way at World Youth Day or in St. Peter's square, hoping to get a glimpse of Our Holy Father as he passed by. This would be the last time I would see Pope John Paul II go by me. This time we were escorting him home.

As the Holy Father's Body was placed in front of the Altar where St. Peter himself is buried we sang solemnly in Latin the beautiful hymn of commendation (again my translation from the Latin):
"Bend down to us Holy God, Speed to us Angels of the Lord, raise up his soul, we are offering him in your sight Most High, may Christ who called you raise you up and may the Angels lead you into the bosom of Abraham. Eternal rest grant unto him Oh Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him."
Then there was a beautiful prayer service with the proclamation of the Gospel (John 17:24-26). At the end of the prayer service the basilica was completely silent as we priests, bishops, and seminarians were allowed to slowly pass by the body to say a final goodby to Our Holy Father. We excited the basilica to see the hundreds of thousands who would now be allowed to pass by the body. The Basilica will remain open almost 24 hours a day for the next three days, they expect that between 2 and 4 million people will pass by the tomb of peter to venerate his 264th successor.

This prayer service was of course a privileged moment to be a priest and to be near our Holy Father. I thought of all my brother priests who had dedicated themselves to his service, and I prayed for us that we may be faithful to the mission Pope John Paul II has given us. John Paul II filled the shoes of Peter in an extraordinary way, and having grown up in his pontificate my own spirituality is profoundly marked by his leadership of the Church: centered on Mary and the Eucharist. His true devotion and courage in proclaiming the Gospel in season and out of season is what I will remember the most. As we prayed in leading him into the basilica, may we follow his footsteps with fervor!

I am hopeful to get a ticket to distribute communion for the funeral which will be Friday at 10 a.m. They are predicting 2 million people including the heads of state of much of the world. It could be one of the largest events in the history of the world. Also a rare opportunity to preach to the world about the Mercy of Jesus which as Our Holy Father pointed out -- we so desperately need.

During these nine days of mourning for Our Holy Father we continue to offer masses for Him. The chapel in our house has a black sash covering the entrances and in the chapel a picture of our Holy Father draped in black with a vigil light, this would be appropriate for all Churches and Catholic Homes as a reminder to pray for Him and for the Church in these next days.

In the Protection of Our Lady,

Fr. Andrew Cozzens

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