Last weekend, in Rome, the mood was jubilant and over a million people came to attend the beatification of John Paul II. I was one of them. This was also an occasion to meet up with my high-school classmate and former chemistry-lab partner, Suzanne, who is finishing her studies at the Harvard School of Divinity Studies.
We are all saints in the making. Some will be officially recognized through the rigorous process of canonization while others will be remembered as having lived saintly lives.
The process for sainthood goes through three phases, before canonization. It commences with the people who knew the candidate well. It is one's sanctity, heroic virtues, and the extraordinary ways a person had lived his life that make him a candidate for sainthood. Pope John Paul's many achievements and the manner in which he conducted his life as a man, a priest, as Pope and as a Polish citizen is inspiring. There is a whole country that was a witness to his works, for he was instrumental in bringing about major change in Poland - the end of communist rule - and also in Eastern Europe, that brought with it positive worldwide implications.
Although there were issues brought up about how he mismanaged some matters facing the Catholic Church during his term - like the pedophile cases - his life is still considered to be highly exemplary for sainthood. All saints were humans, first, with imperfections. Only after death did they become perfect in the eyes of God, for their salvation has been earned through Jesus Christ. A person whose soul goes to heaven is a saint in heaven.
On the eve of this momentous event, we decided to scope out the place. With our hotel just five minutes away from Saint Peter's Square, we were thinking that we were going to have a good spot. There was brisk action all around. The place was crowded. There was constant movement anywhere we went. This place was readied and we were just waiting for the hours to pass.
The pop-up tents were in place in several street corners for emergencies.
This was on via Porcari, corner via Properzio. There were many more places, including some piazzas, that were set up this way.
On one of the main streets where the pilgrims were walking through to get to the venue for the beatification, the Italian orange and apple growers had sent thousands of cases of oranges and apples for the attendees - to welcome and to give instant nourishment for the tired and hungry upon their arrival and during the day of the celebration. Much to our delight, we were offered some orange juice. Oh, that taste of sweet and sour, salty glass of fresh orange juice was so refreshing!
After an Italian meal at Ristorante L'Eccellenza, we joined the crowd on via Borgo Angelico. All access to major streets leading to St. Peter's Square were blocked. We could only go so far.
There were people who were camping on the sidewalks.
Some were trying to get their good night's rest, sleeping.
This was the farthest point we could get to and there were more than a thousand who were already out here by 11:30 p.m. They came with their mats, portable chairs, backpacks, umbrellas, food and other supplies. I realized, then, that we had not prepared for this as the others did. This called for plan B - we were going to join this crowd between five and six o'clock the following morning. 5:00 a.m. was the appointed time to allow access to the main square.
Plan C took effect when we woke up. Suzanne had great difficulty in getting on her feet. She was experiencing so much pain in her foot that had recovered from a sprain she had suffered weeks before. With her resolve to be out there, we were on our way by 8:00 a.m. We hardly slept a wink as we could hear the people walking through our street, via Crescenzio, all night long.
As we looked for a space to situate ourselves, I was so happy to see many young people. I was thinking that these may have been the youth he touched and connected with during the World Youth Day celebrations in different parts of the world. And some were.
We parked ourselves in Piazza Risorgimento, near the corner of via dei Mascherino, only about a couple of minutes from the square - so close but not quite. We were going to participate by way of a big screen, with the televised proceedings. Another lady we met - Lilibeth, who took charge of providing the commemorative coins of the Pope's visit during World Youth Day held in the Philippines, joined us.
Before the scheduled 10:00 ceremony, some people began to move out of the area in search of a toilet or were feeling claustrophobic. Some were too tired to continue being on their feet, while some were hungry and thirsty. I became part of a human chain, with my back turned - to protect our territory, along with some Italians and Poles. It was an experience to see Italian to Italian verbally battling it out, arguing that there was simply nowhere to go and to just stay put.
An Italian lady was showing signs of fainting and we ministered to her. Soon, the emergency personnel showed up.
At around 10:15, a big applause broke when Pope Benedict came on and the beatification of Pope John Paul II was underway.
It got too hot as the sun came brightly shining that morning, contrary to the forecast for rain. This was seen as a miracle through the intercession of Blessed-to-be Pope John Paul II. Most of us came with umbrellas, and these handily served to protect us from the sun, instead.
At every reference made of the honored Pope, the flags were being waved and people were clapping. After more than two hours of watching the proceedings, we decided to have an early start before the crowd dispersed. By this time, Suzanne, who had been standing for close to five hours was bothered by her foot, even more, as it had swollen so much from just standing. We opted to inch our way out to go for lunch.
We were famished as we had not had breakfast. By skipping breakfast, we contented ourselves with some nuts and cookies to survive the morning. We were now on our way to the restaurant we ate at the night before, as it was close by. We walked in and greeted our servers who sat us down as the first clients for lunch. We were informed that it was a fixed meal and no ala carte orders would be taken. Upon perusing the menu, it was going to be too much food for us, so we said we were going to go somewhere else. Our attentive server who said that there was no place to go to as it was crowded, convinced us to stay. He made us an offer: two orders for all three of us. We happily stayed.
Starter courses: Marinated Anchovies & Marinated Salmon with salad greens
A mixed platter of cooked vegetables with strips of mozarella and black olives
Primi piatti: Pasta Vongole (spaghetti with clam sauce) & Risotto Gamberi
Secondi piatti: Gamberi, Calamari, Pesca alla Griglia (grilled seafoods)
Dolci: Tira misu
Vino: A bottle of white wine
Gamberi, Calamari, Pesca alla Griglia
Much to our surprise, the next people who were coming to the door were being turned away. As it turned out, the whole place was practically reserved and they began to come, in groups with priests and other church officials.
Our lunch turned out to be superb. We were just in awe that we found ourselves in this place. After two hours of nourishing our bodies, we decide to go to St. Peter's Square, for the Pope's casket was taken out from the tomb, for veneration. Suzanne decided to go back to the hotel to rest her foot.
Lilibeth and I lined up, starting at the very perimeter of the square. The grounds at the square were littered with paper and plastic.
There was a system to this madness. There were barricades set up to contain the flow of people. The moment people began to push, we learned an Italian expression and used it to remind each other to be patient in line without pushing "piano, piano..."
The sun got so hot, scorching at the hour we were there. We had to peel off our layers of clothing as it was cold early in the morning, to be comfortable.
While in line, groups of people were praying, some were saying the rosary. There was also singing and once started, the others would join in. For me it was a time to reflect on all that had happened so far. The messages of Pope John Paul II were rebroadcast, as we were in line. He was a man of peace and an instrument of God in major world events. We also felt he had a hand in how we got our location in the piazza, the good weather, and how we got to the restaurant, all in perfect timing.
On the right side of the square, posters were hanging in between the columns of the colonnade. Each poster was about an event that was attended by the Pope from the first year he assumed the papacy up to his last year.
The structure above is the papal apartments. The second window to the right is the one the Pope makes his appearances from, to give his noontime welcome messages and blessings to the people who gather in the square every Sunday.
One of the most poignant scenes for me is when he prayed at the wailing wall in Jerusalem, when he visited Israel in March 2000. It was a time when he asked for forgiveness in behalf of the Christians for the sins committed against the Jews, expressed his support for a Palestinian homeland, and blessed Israel.
Inspite of his deteriorating condition, he attended the Jubilee celebration of the apparitions of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, in August of 2004, three years shy of the 150th anniversary. The receiver of the heavenly messages was St. Bernadette Soubirous, whose incorrupt body can be viewed in a glass coffin, for veneration, in Nevers, France.
He had a message for the pilgrims in Lourdes: " I would have liked to stay with you longer. But I find consolation in the words of Jesus. He tells us 'The Advocate - the Holy Spirit - whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything and will remind you of all I have said to you.' The Father sends his spirit of truth and love, into the world. And the Spirit guides us in the ways of peace. Therefore, do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. Dear brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit is with you."
Spalancate le Porte a Cristo - was the message on the left side of the colonnade. It is an invitation for us to "Open wide the doors to Christ."
It had been three hours since we had lined up, to get to this point. We had to make another stop before proceeding.
Inside the church, we were taking turns to get to the side of the barricade to have a good view of...
Blessed John Paul II's casket. With the Swiss guards in their colorful uniforms standing on guard, we moved continuously behind the Baldacchino, in prayer.
Although the casket was removed from the tomb for veneration, it was not opened.
It has not been determined whether his body is in a state of decomposition or incorrupt.
We got out of the church at 7:45 p.m., renewed and lifted up.
The amount of littered plastic was astounding. Bottles of water were being given out for free.
The cleaning crew was still working round the clock.
After we finished our dinner at 11:15 p.m., we passed by and found the same number of people in line, as at the time we were there.
The church was to remain open up to 5:00 a.m. of the following day to accomodate the faithful. Then, the next and final veneration was at the 10:30 a.m. mass, after which, the casket was going to be entombed again.
I caught up with Suzanne, when I got back to the hotel. She had prayerfully meditated about the day's events. She felt that she was being kept by a spirit from writing her paper about the spirituality of going on a pilgrimage. This reminded me of St. Padre Pio who used to have daily bouts with the devil. She came to the decision to write about the agony and ecstasy of a pilgrimage.
The following morning, at breakfast, we met a Polish American priest - Monsigñor Skindeleski. We had an interesting conversation with him. He brought up more stories about the peace negotiator that John Paul II was. According to him, many miracles have been reported as happening through the intercession of Pope John Paul II, after he died. I imagine, his canonization will come soon.
Before we left, Fr. Skindeleski offered to pray for Suzanne. He placed a third-class relic ( a picture of the Pope with Father that was signed by John Paul II) over her foot and prayed. Soon after, Suzanne was able to walk with some ease.
Many of you must have been watching the live telecast from Rome in the comforts of your home, with clear details of what was going on, witnessing another day in history. I stood for a total of of 10 hours on this day. I came to Rome because it was one more step I could take in following the footsteps of Pope John Paul II - a Pope who I had come to know as my pastoral leader for the most part of my adult life. It has been another experience of a lifetime and being there was special.