Cardinal Opilio Rossi: Man of Smiles, Man of Prayer

A Friend Recounts His Last Months of Life

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ROME, FEB. 19, 2004 ( John Paul II had remembered Cardinal Opilio Rossi as «a worthy minister of God who could ‘make himself’ everyone’s neighbor.»

The Pope offered that assessment last Friday at the cardinal’s funeral in St. Peter’s Basilica. The 93-year-old cardinal, a past president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, had died Feb. 9 in Rome after a long illness.

Tony Assaf remembered Cardinal Rossi too. Assaf, a theology student in Rome and Arabic interpreter who looked after the cardinal personally during the last nine months of his life, shared an experience with ZENIT, published below.

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«Things will pass, O God, things will pass and I, too, will pass.»

These are the words of a poem whose author, His Eminence Cardinal Opilio Rossi, could not recall. He would only say that it was a poem that he recited when he was still a boy, in school. He would say this to me smiling, when we were at table, at the Institute of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Calvary, in Fiuggi, which in summer takes in elderly people who come to enjoy the thermal waters of the area.

Personally, I don’t think I will forget that smile and that face which reflected holiness, tranquility and peace. During nine unforgettable months, I accompanied His Eminence, and every passing day, I felt closer to him. In a certain sense, this man’s company has taught me that it is worthwhile to live, and to live life fully.

Despite illness and weakness of body, he was always smiling, with a very fine sense of humor. From my personal experience and from what I have always heard said, the elderly, especially those who suffer from some illness, sometimes tend to lose their patience, even if they don’t wish to do so.

Opilio Rossi, the man, the elderly man, was not like that. During nine months with him in the Domus, in the Paul VI International House for the Clergy, in the convent of Grottaferrata where we spent two months, in Fiuggi and finally in the hospital, he never raised his voice, he never got angry, he never lost patience.

Fiuggi [and] the Institute of Our Lady of Mount Calvary testify and remind me always of the most beautiful experience lived with the cardinal. I have listened to all those we used to meet there, and they have told me that they will never forget that summer full of the presence of Opilio Rossi.

During the last five months of his life in the Pius XI institution, the cardinal spent all his time in bed; his mouth did not speak, but his eyes did.

Since I first met him, he always had the rosary in his hand, and prayed constantly. I used to pray the rosary with him after dinner, but I wasn’t the only one. Every one wanted to pray with him, because with the cardinal it wasn’t so much a duty as a pleasure to do so.

The cardinal left us on Feb. 9 with an illumined face. He left our life, but he will always remain in the hearts of those who knew him.

I would have liked to have spent much more time with him but, unfortunately, the storm always shakes the sail.

Opilio Rossi, the cardinal, the man of smiles, the man of prayer, will always be in my memory and in my heart.

— Tony Assaf

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