A City Shows Its Sorrow, and Its Love

A Pope Gone, Silence Descends

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, APRIL 7, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Over the past week, we’ve experienced the same mounting trepidation succeeded by grief, that Rome has known many times in its millennial history. But we have also seen things that Rome has never seen before, such as the overwhelming outpouring of love for John Paul II, from Romans and foreigners alike.

Starting with tens of thousands during the vigils on Friday and Saturday and swelling to hundreds of thousands after the death of the Pope, the city has been flooded with people all making their way to St. Peter’s Square.

In contrast with the countless times that people have come to the piazza shouting, singing, cheering and chanting, the surprise is the silence. Not the silence of despair but a silence of respect, prayer and peace.

One of the final gifts that the Holy Father left to us was his serenity in the face of death. His last message to the sisters who cared for him was «Sono lieto, siate lieti anche voi» — I’m happy, you be happy too. In prayer, accompanied by the prayers of millions all over the world, John Paul II gave us one last lesson by example, that of the good death.

His peacefulness settled in the square, where it still comforts the crowds. There are many tears, to be sure, but no hysteria, no disconsolate exhibitions of grief. And while the tears reflect our own loss, the universal certainty of the Holy Father’s presence in heaven comforts and strengthens us all. Hundreds of sick and disabled have been brought to the square. It would surprise no one if one of the miracles that will someday be attributed to John Paul II took place in these days.

His other great gift lingering through the city is the ability to draw out the best from people. Countless volunteers patrol the streets, offering shelter to the pilgrims, bringing food and water to those waiting eight to 10 hours in line to view the Holy Father, talking about God and faith and love unabashedly in the workplace, on the streets, on the bus.

I was listening to a group of elderly Roman women talking on the metro. One said, «In 1978, when they elected this Polish guy, I just shrugged and thought I must submit to God’s will. Now I know it was God’s gift.»

The last appearances of John Paul II, a pale, silent figure watching and blessing the crowds gathered in the square, became a sort of precursor to what would come next. Looking up at him, we saw his loving face gazing down from above the 142 statues of saints that adorn the embrace of Bernini’s colonnade.

In that moment, the design of the square became clear as well as timeless. When in years past we stood in the square for the Masses and the audiences, the Holy Father sat in front of us as our leader during our earthly journey, while the great saints of earlier years watched over us as we gathered in the arms of the Church. These last few days, when we began to realize that soon John Paul II would no longer be among us, we could take comfort that he would take his place amid the other saints and continue to tend his flock.

And this realization, for all the tears and the solemnity of the piazza, brought a sense of anticipation. In all the great hagiographies of the Golden Legend, the account never ends with the death of our hero. The most glorious stories begin when the saint is in heaven and the miracles start. Something tells me that John Paul II is already back at work in heaven, busily interceding for those he left behind.

* * *

Faith on the Beat

Here in Rome we are seeing the best of the Italians. The city is plastered with billboards of John Paul II — smiling, blessing, praying — and the major piazzas dotting the city are being prepared so that every Roman can watch the funeral on a big screen. Election campaigning halted for the vigil, schools will close for the funeral, and every Roman — Catholic or not — bears great esteem for «the great man.»

One can get a little spoiled in this environment of respect for the dead, and thus it was a surprise for me to pick up the New York Times and find that John Paul’s obituary referred to the Pope as not «compassionate and loving,» but «theologically intransigent» — a statement which stands in stark contrast to the outpouring of people who are responding to his love for them over a 26-year pontificate.

Other journalists are using his death as a springboard to air their own issues with the Church, whether it be women priests, contraception or bioethical questions. In such a climate it is easy to see how one would develop a sense of cynicism toward the mainstream media.

Yet among the hundreds of men and women who are here covering the papal death and succession, I have met many wonderful people and a number of committed Catholics, who are doing their best to bring out the truth of John Paul II’s life and the great lessons taught in his death.

MSNBC news anchor Christine Jansing is not only a hardworking, highly successful journalist but also a devout Catholic. I spoke with her about the difficulties she encounters in reconciling her two worlds: journalism and faith.

Talking about what this time has been like for her, she told me that her days have been long, starting early in the morning and ending sometimes as late as 3 or 4 the next morning, but that is worth it because it’s not only «transmitting this tremendous experience but having this experience, this amazing blessing as a Catholic to be here at this time.»

Jansing said this period was rendered all the more poignant for her as she had met John Paul II on two occasions with her family.

«I met him about 15 years ago with my mother. I was flabbergasted to be in his presence. I have never before and not since met anyone like him. I’ve met world leaders and the most famous actors, athletes and musicians — never in my life had I felt the presence of God. He emanated this holiness,» she said.

But particularly important to her was as he was walking back to his apartments, «he stopped, turned around and came back and laid his hands on my mother’s head making the sign of the cross on her forehead,» she continued.

«My mother became ill and she died of cancer in 1995, and one of the last things she said before she died was that she was at peace because the Pope had blessed her,» Jansing recalled. «And that gave us all a sense of great peace.»

But with this beautiful experience of the Holy Father and your belief in all he stood for, is it not hard to walk the fine line of «objective journalism»?

«Being a journalist is what I do, being a Catholic is what I am,» she replied, «and I never stop being what I am whether I am reporting on a traffic accident or interviewing the president of the United States.»

Jansing explained: «You can’t separate who you are from how you approach your work. I’d like to think it makes me a better journalist.»

With an optimism in humanity that echoes John Paul II’s own views, Jansing believes «in the wisdom of people» and that if «good, honest and fair information» is given, «most people will use it well.» While covering this story, she has been very forthcoming with her viewers about being Catholic. «It is fair for them to know that,» she added.

Jansing believes that the news reporter’s job is to tell a story, not to preach her message, but that she can also be a vehicle for «other people to tell the story.»

So instead of seeking out dissenting voices, she has been flanked by bishops, theologians and dozens of people pulled from the crowd who have helped us to understand the meaning of the Pope’s suffering, the peacefulness of his death and the tsunami of affection that has rocked Rome.

I asked her if, given her own love for the Pope, she did feel on the fringes of the action. Watching the people gathered in the square from above, or filming from the outer edges, didn’t she just want to come down and be one of them?

f course I’d want to,» she replied, «but on the other hand I’ve been given a great blessing. Many people won’t be able to be here, so I’ve been given a great trust, to bring them here. My burden is to tell it as clearly and as truly as I see it.»

Regarding John Paul’s relationship with the media, Jansing says that he changed the way the papacy approached the media from the first trip of his pontificate, when the Holy Father walked to the back of the plane and started talking to the journalists. Even as his health took a turn for the worse, people were kept informed and «it gave great comfort for people to able to pray for him, and we as journalists were able to talk about it.»

Very touching personally and professionally was the thank-you message to the media that the Pope sent while in the Gemelli hospital. «I think he is going to change the way the Catholic Church communicates for all time,» Jansing said, «and I think it is a wonderful thing for people to know their Church in this way.»

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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