Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Visitors – and above all the Swiss Guards of today and all those who served, down so many epic years from John XXIII to John Paul II: The great Council Vatican II. The Crumbling of the Berlin Wall.
At last I have the chance in person: I want to thank the Swiss Guards for the thousands of kindnesses received at your hands since I first arrived in Rome for autumn classes, in 1956. I don’t know how many hundreds of times you have been of help to me – and to millions of visitors from the entire world.
Some of you have taken part in one or more of the greatest gatherings of human beings in all of human history: The Requiem Mass of John XXIII. World Youth Day in Rome in 1984, 1985, and 2000, the Requiem of Pope John Paul II, when the thick gray clouds parted and a ray of sunlight fell directly on his blond wood casket just as it was lifted up, to be carried into St. Peter’s for entombment.
(*fn: Photos exist of this event: at one moment the pallbearers cast no shadow, then as they lift up the casket, sun breaks above them and shadows leap forth on the paving stones, as their feet turn toward the great entrance to St. Peter’s.… Such events need no miracle of physics. Only, the timing is exquisite.)
Some of your members with signal honor served Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), “Good Pope John,” as the world soon called him. His smiles, his friendship, his openness of manner opened a new era.
Many more of you served Pope John Paul the Great (1978-2005), a title bestowed on him by his own mourners in a kind of acclamation. Remember them? And the millions here who packed all the streets of Rome in 2005? The life and death of John Paul II affirmed the era John XXIII began, confirmed it really, brought it to a worldwide roundness. Without the one pope, the other would be incomplete.
On a more personal side: Perhaps twenty or thirty of you at various times escorted my wife Karen and me up the stairways to lunch or dinner with Pope John Paul the Great (she and I thought him “the Great” even then), or else up to to his early morning mass.
To watch that man pray was to see a man hunched rapt in the presence of God, as one had never seen anyone before. He seemed to have gone far, far inside, into the inner City of God, while we were left behind. Many of you saw him so, silent and in prayer. Many of you felt with awe the presence of God around him.
Others of you stood guard outside the doors while he was at table with cardinals or bishops or with friends, when to look into his twinkling eyes was to look into the merry eyes of one’s uncle or one’s white-haired grandfather or good S. Nicholas himself. Some of you will remember his steadily thinning and whitening hair down the years, his droll humor. On this earth, his sense of irony had no rival.
Others of you watched as he suffered under advancing age, struggling to pull himself up along a rail into an airplane, finally submitting to being driven even within. Vatican halls in a quiet cart. He dealt with his infirmities with humor and with kindness. He must have smiled at hundreds of you, shift by shift, sometimes with jabbing humor, sometimes with warm words for your families.
Some of you, I know, were converted by him, from a faith that was slumbering or had perhaps even fled. You saw, and you believed.
Faraway, I used to love to hear him say: “Do not be afraid!” There was much to be afraid of in those days. For hundreds of millions, the times were thick with darkness and with pain.
When I first heard him speak of all Europe as one tree held apart in two separated branches – this was in the first days of his appearance, white and frail, from the weeks of recovery after that awful assassination attempt on his life – and when I heard him imagine aloud the tearing down of that wall and all Europe becoming one again, united, I thought he was a good pope but way too good, too utopian. Too wishful.
Instead, the Good Pope bided his time. Then like Joshua he gave that wall a little jab and down it crumbled into the dustbin of history. I thought it a miracle. He thought it long past due.
He once said to me: “It was falling of its own weight.” The Communists, it would be like him to smile, “never did learn to make good cement.” And he might have added, as he did in the early grafs of Centesimus Annus: They could hold nothing together, lacking God.
All of us here loved Pope John Paul the Great. And it will feel very good to call him Saint. It will be wonderful to pray to him as Saint. It is very, very sweet to feel his presence here with us. We can almost hear him thank all who were so close to him day after day, every day of his pontificate. He will not forget you, ever.
This is the text of an address given by Ambassador Michael Novak at the barracks of the Swiss Guard, Vatican City April 25th.