|Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII|
Coming to Rome for the Canonization Mass for Popes John XXIII and John Paul II has been an experience of a lifetime for me. I can recall as a seminarian attending the Canonization Mass of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in September 1975 after arriving in Rome a few weeks earlier. I had the unforgettable privilege of serving and carrying Pope Paul VI’s crosier at the Canonization Mass of St. John Neumann, a bishop from Philadelphia in June 1977.
The canonization of Pope John Paul II, in particular, has far more impacted me than those other canonizations. I had the opportunity not only to witness Pope John Paul’s election, but also to have his papacy profoundly my priesthood and our church entering the Third Millennium.
I had the privilege of leading 26 people on a pilgrimage for the Canonization Mass on Sunday, April 27. Ten members of our group are from St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha, where I serve as pastor. We were extremely fortunate to stay at a religious sisters’ guest house about 150 yards from St. Peter’s Square. We watched people walking by day and night in large groups processing to St. Peter’s Square in anticipation of the Canonization Mass.
Once we arrived in Rome, we immediately walked to St. Peter’s Square where it was filled with milling people. On the front of the basilica hung two large tapestries with the images of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II. The line for the entrance into the basilica was over a quarter mile in length. This was already a few days before the canonization took place.
Everywhere on the side streets around St. Peter’s Basilica were posters of three popes – Pope Francis with John XXIII and John Paul II. Those posters said much, however, there was another pope that could be included, retired Pope Benedict XVI. There was a festive spirit among the people. As a priest wearing the Roman collar, I was asked frequently by people for directions to various churches or other questions about the significance of what is happening.
Our group went on April 26 to the village of Assisi, three hours north of Rome, in the Apennine Mountain range. It was a bright sunny day with rolling fog clouds moving across the mountain backdrop. Assisi is the home of Sts. Francis and Clare. There were extraordinarily large crowds of people at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, where St. Francis had lived and died. A guide who has worked in Assisi for about 45 years said these were the largest crowds they had ever seen as a guide.
While I was visiting with two priests from Poland in the sacristy before Mass, one priest mentioned he had been in Omaha at the Pope Paul VI Institute two weeks ago. They were both professors at the University of Lublin, where Pope John Paul II had taught. I congratulated them for their new Polish saint, and they responded, saying St. John Paul II is our new saint for the church.
Never had I seen such large crowds in the centuries-old village of Assisi. Long lines of buses and cars filled the roads. Something remarkable happened, however. There was no honking of horns and few frustrated drivers. If you have lived very long in Italy, you know there is little patience with delayed drivers. Even the milling people filling the Basilica of St. Clare and the Basilica of St. Francis were remarkably respectful of each other.
When we returned to Rome on Saturday evening, the cars were cleared from the major streets around St. Peter’s Basilica. Our guide said he had never seen the wide streets cleared of any vehicles. That evening and into the night, large groups of people processed by the hotel on their way to St. Peter’s Square. They were usually led by priests, accompanied by people waving their national flags and chanting religious songs. Early into the morning, the groups continued to come by. One group, in particular, was touching as they walked, singing a song to the Madonna, while they carried the Polish flag and the Vatican flag. In the back of the group walked a little boy, four or five years old, who was proudly waving a Polish flag.
I was very impressed by a number of people in our group who wanted to line up overnight for the privilege of attending the Canonization Mass. Very few tickets were given to the public for the Mass in St. Peter’s Square. After our Saturday evening dinner at 8 p.m., members of our group left throughout the night and into the early morning hours. They took along a warm coat, some food items and water, and a portable three-legged chair.
They joined thousands of other pilgrims at the only entrance to St. Peter’s Square. It was a very challenging situation where once you were in line you were continually pressed by other people throughout the night.
It turned out to be a physically demanding experience as people tried to stand, move forward, and were pressed on all sides for hours on end. People kept coming into the line every hour. It was said that Poland had sent 700 buses and left off at the outskirts of Rome. The police would not allow vehicles to drive in the central area of Rome. If there were up to 70 people in each bus, that would add 35,000 to almost 50,000 people coming every hour of the night. No wonder I kept hearing groups of people walking and singing by my window every hour of the night.
Standing in line for hours did not allow for actual breaks to eat, drink or rest, but members of our group told of wonderful kindnesses extended to them by strangers. A number of people became dehydrated and needed medical attention after they had fainted. Medical assistance tents were set up to support the people undergoing strain.
Early in the morning, the lines into St. Peter’s Square gradually opened up to groups of people. The weather was cool and cloudy. I was fortunate to have a ticket for the priest section near the front of St. Peter’s Square, and was seated about 250 feet from the altar and 300 feet from the pope’s chair. There were more than 1,000 cardinals and bishops concelebrating at the Mass. The priest section held about 5,000 seats. The square slowly filled each hour as people were allowed in by groups after their night-long vigil. A few members of our group actually got in the middle of the square while some others were close to the entrance of the square. There were large TV monitors placed where the thousands of people could view the Mass.
I met up with Fr. Dave Hulshof, a priest friend from my seminary days in Rome who is from the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo.
I met Pope John Paul II about six weeks after he was elected in 1978, and Fr. Dave served as a deacon at a Mass shortly before the pope was shot in May 1981. We marveled how we had the privilege to encounter a saint of the church in our lifetime. We felt as if we had come full circle in our experience with Pope John Paul II over the years.
As the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica began to ring with full force, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI came to be seated before the Mass. The crowd erupted with a standing ovation with fond appreciation for our retired pope. At the beginning of the Mass, Pope Francis made a point to come to Pope Emeritus Benedict and welcome him to this Mass, which held special meaning for him. Pope Emeritus Benedict had worked very closely with Pope John Paul II during his papacy.
Surprisingly, the canonization ceremony took place at the beginning of Mass with the Litany of Saints. The ceremony entailed three petitions: a request from the church for these two popes to be recognized as saints of the church, a request for the Holy Spirit to bless this process with the “Veni Creator Spiritus” song, and a request for the Holy Father to approve the two popes as saints of the church. When Pope Francis offered his approval, the crowd stood and erupted with loud cheering and sustained applause. Flags and banners waved merrily throughout the square in joyful jubilation and celebration. It was an unforgettable moment of joy and enthusiasm.
Up to this point, there had been dark clouds moving across the sky, and there had been drizzle at the beginning of the Mass. With the pronouncement of the two new saints, the clouds moved apart and the sun began to shine brightly for a few minutes. It was a moment where it seemed nature was honoring the two new saints as well! The readings for the Mass were in Italian, Latin, Polish and Greek. More than 600 priests distributed the Eucharist to the hundreds of thousands attending the Mass. The Mass was a little over two hours with comfortable cloudy weather.
After the Mass, Pope Francis met for almost an hour with special dignitary persons from countries around the world. No one could leave the square as the barricades were closed. Then the Holy Father got into the pope-mobile and rode through the aisles of the square and down the main street leading to the square for about 20 minutes. He waved as he passed through the crowds of people who cheered him enthusiastically. It took a long time for people to file out of the crowded square and surrounding streets. Again, we were pressed in by the seas of people around us.
Later in the afternoon, we were blessed to have an hour visit at the North American College located near St. Peter’s Square. Fr. John Norman, a newly ordained priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha, and Matt Niggemeyer, a third-year seminarian from Omaha, offered gracious hospitality as we visited the seminary. That evening, members of our group shared their stories about their experiences with their overnight vigil for the Mass. They had been overwhelmed with their physically challenging situations but agreed they had shared an experience of a lifetime.
Afterwards I stopped at the entrance of the guest house where our group stayed and I saw a large picture of Pope John Paul II. He was shown in his later years when he was obviously weakened. His right hand was raised with a blessing. I wonder about the reason for this picture, among hundreds, which could be used to welcome guests. I realize it offers the reason for our love for him. He had a strong love for God and the church. Pope John Paul II would serve in an extraordinary manner for more than 26 years. His strength was exemplified even in his weakness with his powerful faith. No wonder the church has proclaimed him St. John Paul II!