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An immense crowd for a solemn and joifull celebration

Pope Wojtyla was there. In that Square once more spilling over with a crowd unable to resist his call. A crowd which could not be contained even by that space so used to hosting the city and the world. Streets and squares around St. Peter’s were invaded from the early hours of the night, spent in vigil. Banners, flags, handkerchiefs, balloons and knick-knacks in hundreds of multi-colored examples were everywhere. It was, “an extraordinary event, without precedence, in the last ten centuries of the Church’s history,” as we wrote on the front page of our Saturday edition – with the date of Sunday, May 1st – attempting to capture in the best way possible, what would happen the following day; a day to live in the joy of a “great festival of faith” for the beatification of John Paul II.

Now that the event is over and it is already time for reflection and remembering, one realizes that numbers and scenery and historic data count little:  the greatness of the emotions experienced can be summed up in a phrase which seemed an aside, at the conclusion of eight pages of a talk dense with meaning and spirituality. “Many times,” said Benedict XVI improvising after his homily, “you have blessed us in this square from the Apostolic Palace. Today, we pray:  Holy Father bless us.” An invocation which begins from a friend, Pope Benedict XVI, who for 23 years was able, “to be close to him and venerate his person,” and ends with deference to the “Holy Father,” in a call from the universe, both Christian and non, to an extraordinary man of God who subverted the social order of the world. Just how extraordinary this man was, is highlighted by his Successor, the Pope, who had the joy to proclaim him Blessed, and did not hesitate to call him, “Holy Father.” And so John Paul II is made truly present in this Square without end; a man in whom the synthesis of every life experience is expressed.

In his homily, Pope Ratzinger outlined the stature of this man, with a love that went well beyond his words. A “strong man.” An ascetic priest. A bishop who devoted all his strength to completing step by step the journey of man; a journey of joy and of pain. A Pope who, bringing the cross of Christ to the world, inverted “with the force of a giant” an tendency which seemed irreversible. Even when he was most fragile, a true icon of suffering. His only support was that cross which, from the time he arrived in Rome from Poland, had become the place of his suffering; from when he began to express and make visible the suffering for a society running from God and from Christ. From the very first days, in the stirring figure of the new Pontiff, the outline of the man from the mountains of Tatra was there, almost presaging the difficult times of his final days. Despite everything, “he always remained a rock as Christ wanted,” said Benedict XVI, succeeding in guiding the Church and giving the world an eloquent message:  become one with a merciful Christ.

It was not by chance that before the beginning of the liturgy, around 9:30 am, while official delegations from 87 countries took their places at the sides of the altar in front of the Basilica, four readers in different languages read passages from some of the homilies of John Paul II dedicated to Divine Mercy.  Everything around Bernini’s columns had been transformed like a large book in which the most important pages of the Polish Pontiff’s thought were opened:  “Do not be afraid. Open the doors to Christ.”

The celebration of the rite of Beatification of John Paul II was an exceptional lectio magistralis in two voices on the second Sunday of Easter, the Sunday dedicated by the late Pope to Divine Mercy. A large image of the Merciful Christ, placed before the altar decorated like a garden in full bloom, welcomed the long procession of Benedict XVI from the Bronze Doors.

The 130 cardinals present gave the atmosphere a similar feeling to that of the Conclave of October 16, almost thirty-three years ago, which chose the favorite son of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski to be the successor of John Paul I. (Not among them, unfortunately, was Cardinal Augustin Garcia Gasco y Vicente, archbishop emeritus of Valencia, who died in the early hours of that very morning. He was in Rome to participate in the ceremony and had just turned eighty.)

Approximately ten minutes of applause followed the proclamation of the beatification beseeched by Cardinal Agostino Vallini, and confirmed, if it was even necessary, the idea of how much the immense crowd loved Papa Wojtyla. Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, who was miraculously cured through the intercession of John Paul II, smiled widely at the announcement as she brought a relic of his blood to the altar. Next to her, Sister Tobiana Lucyna Sobotka, the superior of the sisters of the apartment of the Blessed Pope, could not contain her tears.

Thousands of flags waved in the square, five red balloons raised up the thanks of the faithful on high, and a white sheet with the words, “Deo gratias,” colored the sky, which despite every gloomy forecast became ever more clear and resplendent. As so often happened in encounters with Wojtyla, the sun shone through the threatening clouds just in time. Who knows how many in the square, raising their eyes to the heavens to watch the flight of the balloons, marveled at the coincidence? The square once again sang out with the chant, “Santo Subito!” just as it had six years ago when the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, still unaware of what the Lord had in store for him, celebrated the funeral of the beloved Pontiff.

The chanting was only drowned out by the applause for the slow unveiling of the image of the newly Blessed, reproduced on a tapestry hung in the central Loggia of the basilica. An image taken by Polish photographer, Grzegorz Galazka. Looking around, one saw faces streaming with tears:  women’s faces especially. Many knelt, in a spontaneous gesture. Then, the joy and the certainty to have him, from now on, even closer.

He was already there. At a little distance from the noise of the square. But he was there. In the basilica immersed in silence, before the Altar of Confession. The coffin on a bed of white and yellow roses. Four Swiss Guards and two Gendarmes in full dress were his honor guards. On the coffin was a copy of a Gospel by Lorsch, from the Middle Ages, one of the most precious in the Apostolic Library. In front of the Altar of Celebration, the exposition of a relic, a phial of his blood. The vestments that he wore so many times during celebrations were worn by Benedict XVI, in yet another gesture of devotion. The crowd, which extended over the Ponte Vittorio and down the entire via della Conciliazione, was his crowd. At least 60,000 Polish people came to Rome, using every means. Ten or so even came by bicycle. And then there were his young people. They kept vigil the entire night and patiently waited until 5am when the barriers were lifted and they were allowed into St. Peter’s Square. Those who couldn’t fit in didn’t give up but circled around until they found a space in front of one of the giant maxi-screens around St. Peter’s and the city, as far away as the airport, even. Pilgrims came from all parts of the world including Japan. Father Mario Yamanouchi, a Salesian Provincial Vicar, said, “They have come to entrust John Paul II with the suffering of their people.” The mass, directed by Master of Liturgical Ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, was celebrated with traditional solemnity with the impressive contribution of the Sistine Chapel choir, members of the choir of the diocese of Rome and the orchestra and choir of Santa Cecilia. Six-hundred priests distributed communion in St. Peter’s Square, with another three-hundred along the side streets around the basilica.

Before concluding the mass, the Pope issued a long series of thanks to all those who desired to be part of the celebration and to all those who, by their work, made it possible.

In an intimate moment, the Pope spent some time in prayer before the coffin of John Paul II, immediately following the mass. Perhaps he would have happily stayed longer with “his” Karol Wojtyla, had there not been the delegation of officials waiting to greet him in the Chapel of Pieta’, and duty called.

After the Pope, the Cardinals, one by one, filed past the coffin. And then began the long procession of faithful, which continues uninterrupted until tonight, May 2nd when behind closed doors the casket will be placed in the Chapel of St. Sebastian, next to the Chapel of Pieta’.

Then, on October 22 of every year, in Rome and in Poland, it will be possible to celebrate the feast of  the Blessed. Local bishops in other dioceses will establish a date for their feasts, as decreed by the Congregation for Divine Worship. There are those, however, who are already thinking of something more universal.

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St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 15, 2019