The Paesano From Poland; Youths in Mourning

Italians Came to Love John Paul II as One of Their Own

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, APRIL 14, 2005 ( Rome and Italy have become more reverent over this past week, following the city’s loss of its pastoral leader and the intense period of waiting for a new one.

For a culture that finds change difficult, even in the best of times, in the eyes of many Romans, Pope John Paul II’s 26-year pontificate was just getting started. And they mourn him as they would their own family members. He was theirs and even spoke their dialect.

This wasn’t always the city’s attitude though, as Bishop John Magee, a past secretary to three Popes, told me.

Since the Thursday before John Paul II’s passing, Bishop Magee noted the “river of humanity” that has been “heading into the See of Peter” even on Sunday at the usual Angelus hour. Bishop Magee, of the Cloyne Diocese in Ireland, was in Rome during these days.

The bishop tried to lift the spirits of the devastated Italians by asking them why they were crying during this joyous paschal time — “Christ himself has died, Christ has risen. And in this very same season, his vicar has died and this vicar will rise — that’s reason for joy and happiness.”

Bishop Magee, 68, has been telling pilgrims of John Paul’s peaceful final hours; his faith-filled, fearless attitude toward death; his rolling on his side after receiving Communion, pointing to the window and saying, “I have gone to you, now you have come to me.”

The native Irishman remembers John Paul’s election, when hardly an Italian could comprehend their new Pope’s name. “There was an absolute stunned silence from the square below the Apostolic Palace,” Bishop Magee said.

Dynamic as he was, the Polish Pope was not immediately accepted, even among the ranks of the Italian bishops’ conference, the prelate said.

“Once, I was at the table with the Pope at lunch when he received the Italian bishops,” recalled Bishop Magee. “And I remember how one archbishop stood up at the end of the meal to make, what we thought, was going to be one of those ‘dreaded speeches’ …

“The archbishop began with: ‘Holy Father, I have a confession to make.’ John Paul, with a smirk on his face, immediately said, ‘Do you mind coming to the next room?’

“But the archbishop insisted: ‘No, though I’ve taken it to the confessional, it’s a public confession I want to make in the presence of my brother bishops here at our conference.’

“He said: ‘I was at home the night you were elected and was so devastated at hearing your name as I knew it was not an Italian, that for three months I did not use your name in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I couldn’t.’

“‘Now,’ he said, ‘I am here to ask your pardon because I realize that you are truly a gift from God. But, it took me a long time to get around to it.'”

Bishop Magee wondered then, he recalled, just how many others might have been in “the same boat of difficulty.” He contrasts those beginning moments of this papacy with Rome’s response today.

“He went over many confines and continents and indeed we saw many barriers fall,” the Irish bishop said.

I asked Bishop Magee what qualities he would look for in any future Pope.

He replied: “He would be himself. For me, I think it would be very wrong if a new pope were to try to emulate what he saw in John Paul II. The mission is the same, but all of them have been totally different. I’ve seen it in Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II.

“Their whole charisms, their manner of meeting people, their manner of speaking to people and the natural talents that they have — I mean, John Paul II used his natural talents to the greatest benefit and combined with the supernatural talents and graces that he had. He was ideal.”

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Last Respects for Their Hero

From the colossal prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square prior to the Pope’s death, through the lines to see him lying in state, to the influx of foreigners at his funeral — young people played a vital role.

Those living in Rome have been hosting “Irish wakes,” prayer recollections and people, by night.

By day, I am still stepping around snoozing pilgrims wrapped in sleeping bags on my way to my office near the Vatican.

The young people are singing, praying, crying and remembering. Most of them are under the age of 30.

All have their own story about how their lives were touched by John Paul II, and what it was that brought them in Rome.

There was the young Polish contingent who came in six especially allocated trains. But even Poles elsewhere made a great effort to attend the funeral of their national and spiritual leader.

Beata Kmiec, 26, was among those Poles who, after years of living in United States, dropped everything to pay her respects in Rome. “Everything told me that I had to be here. I just knew,” she told me.

“I was at JFK Airport after a business trip, and 10 minutes before I had to catch the plane back home to California, something told me to turn around and get the next flight to Rome … the only one I found left at 3 p.m.,” she said. “I arrived in Rome with one hour to spare prior to the funeral.”

It was with the same determination that students from the Franciscan University of Steubenville program in Gaming, Austria, arrived in Rome for enough time to join the queue to view the body of the Holy Father before returning to their classes.

“We came down with 138 students as the administration had gotten five buses for us to drive the 14 hours through last night, and we’ll return tonight in time for class tomorrow,” student Mike Kent told me.

“It’s the least we could do for a beautiful man who has given us so much,” added Emily Mallay, another student. “He was a needed beacon of uncompromising truth who told us we were worth more than what society tells us.”

John Kunz would agree. The 24-year-old American, who is writing a master’s thesis based on the Pope’s works on the ego and the will, said he maintained a vigil in or near St. Peter’s Square during much of the illness, death and mourning time of the Holy Father.

“The hard part was the waiting,” he said. “I felt blessed to be able to stay with him in his garden of Gethsemane, but now it’s difficult to say goodbye properly to this figure who’s touched me profoundly.”

Others voiced similar, mixed feelings to me as I moved about during the various events.

A pontifical university student, Laurie Olsen, was stunned at the long confessional lines in the city’s churches. Some lines spilled into the streets.

“I really think it’s a joyful moment, and not a time to be sad,” she said, “because this is his moment of victory because this is a life lived well. He has poured it out for the sake of others, he’s poured it out for the sake of the Church till the very last drop and we’re all given the opportunity to be with him as he passes.”

Other youth were surprised at their own reactions. A South African tour guide, Nella D’Ambrosio, said she had “never really been religious in any way.”

“That’s why I was shocked that hearing about the status of the Pope made such an impact on me,” she said. “Since that moment, I’ve been feeling something trembling deep inside me which has brought me here to the square. I never thought that my emotions would get the better of me in this way for someone I have never met or known!”

D’Ambrosio said her feelings are based on the “acknowledgment that the Pope didn’t have to be affixed to any specific label as he just brings us together in one way or another. If I think of the Pope, I think of a great mentor for peace.”

Contrary to the popular media portrayal that young people loved John Paul II, but not his teachings, the director of the International Movement for Catholic Students, Kevin Ahern, insisted that it was precisely for such teaching that young people flocked to the Pope.

“The Holy Father challenged
us to change and to live a life that people think cannot be lived as Jesus Christ himself did,” Ahern said.

He added: “His love and passion for us youth was clearly seen since the beginning of his pontificate with the establishment of the Vatican Youth Center which gave birth to the idea for the World Youth Days.

“These have since drawn millions of young people together in tangible community, prayer and pilgrimage. His commitment to empower and serve the young can be seen in the annual statements he wrote on these days which will continue to serve as an inspiration for the young to live the Gospel in their lives.”<br>
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Catherine Smibert can be reached at

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