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CURRENT ISSUE:  April 11, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 7Oakland, CA

World bids final farewell to Pope John Paul

Two Oakland priests view pope’s body during a special visit

The week before John Paul II’s final illness and death, Sulpician Father Hy Nguyen, formerly of St. Theresa Parish in Oakland and now studying in Rome, was visiting Poland, walking in the pontiff’s homeland footsteps.

At the same time Father Sergio Lopez, also from Oakland, was taking a break from his studies in Rome to visit Barcelona, and Father Paul Schmidt, former diocesan director of priest personnel, was on sabbatical in Belgium. All three priests were soon heading for Italy.

Having seen Karol Wojtyla’s birthplace, parish church, school, and the Bishop’s Palace where he lived and worked before being elected Pope 26 years ago, Father Nguyen returned on April 3, doubly determined to offer a final farewell.

It took patience and luck for the priest to carry out his plan. He tried to attend the public viewing of the pope’s body at St. Peter’s Basilica on April 4 and again in the pre-dawn hours of April 5. But the press of people - 200,000 and growing - made it impossible, he said in a telephone interview.

Then Father Nguyen heard that neighbors at Casa Maria, the residence for American clergy in Rome, had been invited to an April 6 Mass offered by Cardinal Camillo Ruini in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica, to be followed by a visit to the pope’s wake.

Father Nguyen took this news as the opportunity of a lifetime. The crypt has back door access away and a stairway leading up to the basilica. So Father Nguyen and Father Lopez tagged along behind the special guests, and after Mass, in a spirit of intrigue, the two of them followed the cardinal’s contingent up the back stairs into the basilica.

As he stood before the body of John Paul, Father Nguyen said, “There was no question, a holy man was lying there.”

Father Lopez recalled that the last time he had seen the pope alive was on Palm Sunday, just before leaving for Barcelona. “I saw him through his window when he was directing us some words. That window will never be open again; we will never be able to receive words of faith, peace and hope from him.”

Rushing back to Rome, Father Lopez said, “The first thing I perceived was the sense of sadness throughout the whole city. Almost everywhere you could overhear people commenting about something related to John Paul II.”

In St. Peter’s Square Father Lopez saw people expressing “in a diversity of ways the sadness for having lost a great person, a shepherd, a friend, a father. They expressed it in their prayers, their silence, their songs, the tears of adults, youngsters, children, some lighting a candle or writing messages in the small provision altars the people had created.”

Father Joseph Duong Phan, another graduate student from the Oakland Diocese, had similar observations. “When Cardinal Ruini announced that the pope had died, the crowd of 70,000 was absolutely quiet. Then people stood up and looked at the apartment window of the pope knowing they had just lost their most beloved and popular shepherd.”

Father Schmidt had left for Italy on April 1 and found there that the media “continuously featured pictures, which are worth a thousand words: the pope’s meeting with religious leaders at Assisi, the pope kissing babies, the pope addressing crowds round the world.”

The priest talked to several young people while he was in Naples, the first city of his visit, and heard a 22-year-old student describe John Paul II as “a charismatic pope who will continue the effort to unite the churches.” An 18-year-old companion said he hoped the next pope “would continue in the same way” as his predecessor.

Said Father Schmidt: “The young men reminded me that they had known no other pope. One student told me, ‘He was a great man.’”
Television showed pictures of people lined up for blocks to pay their respects, said Father Schmidt. Some had waited for seven hours. “They said they were tired but happy to take part in John Paul II’s funeral because this was a way to return the love he showed, especially for young people.”

Father Nguyen noticed similar reactions during his visit to Poland. People wanted to be near where the pope had lived, and where he had spoken to them so many times in the past. When word of the pope’s illness reached Krakow in the last days of March, residents began gathering in the plaza outside the Bishop’s Palace, John Paul’s former residence, where he had stayed when he came back to visit.

“He would open the window of his old second floor office and talk to the people outside,” said Father Nguyen.

The people remembered those days, and 10,000 of them showed up in support of their dying Holy Father. Their hearts were full of memories – for example, of how their spiritual leader, then an archbishop, had championed Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Movement against the government. Or how he had doggedly confronted local communist authorities’ requests to let him build a church in a nearby village.

The village was destined to become the site of an industrial work-live neighborhood, and Archbishop Wojtyla insisted that the people needed a sacred presence there to counter the atheistic government’s mindset, said Father Nguyen. The archbishop was allowed to build his church.

Today it has 20,000 parishioners, said Father Nguyen, who visited the parish during his trip.

Father Nguyen said that another 7,000 individuals had assembled nearby in the square outside St. Francis Church to pray for their dying hero. “They stayed throughout the night at both places.” Their prayers were quiet, their demeanor subdued and reverent, he said.

But then, before 10 p.m. on Saturday evening, April 2, they began shedding tears as word arrived that Pope John Paul II, 84-year-old Karol Wojtyla, had died. He had succumbed to septic shock, and an irreversible collapse of blood pressure. Renato Buzzonetti, the people’s longtime personal physician, signed the death certificate, which stated that the pope suffered from breathing problems, a benign enlarged prostate complicated by a urinary infection and heart disease.

The pope had struggled with Parkinson’s disease for the past 15 years, and two years into his papacy, he survived abdominal wounds from the gun fired by a Turkish would-be assassin.

The day following the pope death’s Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, presided over a Mass for the repose of the pope’s soul. He concluded with the dramatic reading of a posthumous appeal from the pope to the world to “understand and welcome the Divine Mercy.”

Pope John Paul had prepared the text for Sunday’s solemnity of Divine Mercy, a feast that he himself created to celebrate the mystery of God’s love for humanity.

“To humanity, which sometimes seems lost and dominated by the power of evil, egoism and fear, the risen Lord offers as a gift his love that pardons, reconciles and reopens the soul to hope. It is love that converts hearts and gives peace,” the pope said in a message that seemed to sum up the mission of his 26-year pontificate.

Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, assistant secretary of state and a member of the papal household, read the text. He frequently served as a stand-in for John Paul when the pope was too weak to read his own texts.

In the prepared text of his homily for the Mass, Cardinal Sodano called John Paul “the cantor of the civilization of love. From heaven may he look over us always and help us to cross the threshold of hope,” he said, referring to the title of one of the pope’s most popular books,
“Crossing the Threshold of Hope.”

“The cantor of the civilization of love” is probably as apt a description as any for those who supported Pope John Paul II unconditionally.

Jesuit Father Robert Wawer, co-director of the Polish Pastoral Center in the Oakland Diocese, recalled how determined the elderly pope was to remain independent, despite his increasing frailty.

In May of 2001, just before his ordination to the priesthood, Father Wawer traveled to Rome for a papal audience. “I wanted to ask him for a blessing for my ordination,” he said. He was invited to serve as a deacon at the pope’s Mass in his private chapel.

During the Mass, as the pope moved back and forth from his chair to the altar, he had to negotiate one step up and down. “But he was stubborn. He didn’t ask for any help. He took the pain and suffering as it came. It was a very touching moment for me,” Father Wawer said.

Franciscan Father Marco Antonio Figueroa, pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish in Oakland, and permanent Deacon Witold Cichon, associate director of the Polish Pastoral Center, paid tribute to John Paul as well.

Father Figueroa was in Rome from Feb. 20 through March 4, with 14 Spanish-speaking pilgrims. “We were the very last group of pilgrims that he blessed,” said Father Figueroa. His group had gone to the pope’s regular Wednesday gathering in an auditorium next to the basilica, but John Paul, in failing health, spoke to them via television from his library.

“He was very welcoming, and very warm, but you could see his pain in trying to make himself be heard.” Within hours of this final papal audience, Pope John Paul was taken to the hospital. The date was Feb. 23. Father Figueroa will never forget it.

The day of the pope’s death, “people poured into St. Elizabeth’s by the thousands,” Father Figueroa said. A special Mass in his honor was celebrated at the Fruitvale parish on April 8.

Deacon Witold Cichon has an especially precious memento from his last visit to Rome in 2003: a videotape of a concert he and his wife, Anna, attended on the 25th anniversary of John Paul’s papacy.

“The concert was produced by Polish artists who recited our pope’s
poetry. It was very memorable. The Holy Father was very happy on that day.”

Deacon Cichon called the pope’s death “the great loss of our time. God sent him to Poland to guide not only our country in these difficult times, but to guide the entire world community. The Holy Father inspired and supported our Polish people to peacefully abolish communism and once it was successfully done in Poland, it had a domino effect in the entire of Europe.

“Without this Pontiff, without that peaceful anti-communist revolution in Poland, we still would be divided into West and East... During the 26 years of this pontificate, he changed the face of this planet, and countless numbers of individuals, regardless of their faith and orientation.”
The final farewell for Pope John Paul II took place on Friday, April 8. His body was placed in a wooden coffin on the eve of the funeral, and his longtime secretary and friend, Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, put a white silk veil over his face.

The coffin was closed for the three-hour funeral Mass in St. Peter’s Square, presided over by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, and concelebrated by his fellow cardinals on the steps of the basilica.

The coffin had a zinc casing and an outer shell of wood, and was laid in bare ground in space previously occupied by the sarcophagus of Pope John XXIII, who now lies in a glass coffin in the basilica. John Paul had expressed a desire to be buried in “bare earth” and not in a tomb above the ground.

Going into the coffin with him was a rogito, a sealed lead tube containing a scroll on which a brief biography is written in Latin, and a small sack of Vatican medals in silver and bronze bearing the year of the pope’s death. Tradition calls for coins, but medals were substituted because the euros now in use in Vatican City are not dated.

President George Bush and his wife, Laura, led a U.S. delegation to the funeral. It included former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The Italian government appropriated $10.4 million in emergency funds to cover logistical expenses, including security, transportation, and sanitation, first aid and camping sites for pilgrims who converged on Rome and the Vatican.

An estimated four million pilgrims, including one million from Poland, came to the Vatican for the mourning period and funeral.

(Religion News Service contributed to this report.)

Pall bearers carry the body of Pope John Paul II through a packed Saint Peter’s Square enroute to the Basilica at the Vatican April 4. His April 8 funeral was expected to draw the greatest tide of pilgrims and heads of state to the Vatican in its history.




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