By Andrea Kirk Assaf
ROME, May 4, 2011 (Zenit.org).- From the air the view was magnificent — under a rich blue canopy a colorful sea of people filled every inch of St. Peter’s Square, pouring out down the length of via della Conciliazione, encircling the Castel Sant’Angelo, and running the length of the Tiber all the way to the Circus Maximus.
Over one million pilgrims, it is estimated, made their way to Rome to witness the beatification of Pope John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday, the largest turnout for a beatification in history.
From the ground the view was rather less celestial and far earthier, more akin to a scene from “A Pilgrim’s Progress” or “Canterbury Tales.” Outside the seated area flanking the altar in front of St. Peter’s Basilica that was reserved for concelebrating priests, royalty, and heads of state, it was standing room only, with backpack-sporting pilgrims standing shoulder to shoulder. Some hardy pilgrims slept on the ground near St. Peter’s to ensure their proximity the next day, the others began arriving at 2 a.m. to wait in the damp, chilly darkness until the ceremony began eight hours later.
Besides the few routes created for security, volunteers, and the media, there was little chance of mobility for the pilgrim groups after they had claimed their spot. It was there they stayed until the end of the event at 1 p.m. when the exit itself took hours with police directing the crowds through one point and controlling the flood that descended upon the St. Peter’s train station afterward.
Moving through the crowd was a risky and excruciatingly slow process that tested the patience of both those on the move and the stagnant. Given these conditions it seemed almost miraculous that no serious incidents occurred beyond cases of heat exhaustion under the noonday sun.
Indeed, the one death reported Sunday was that of Cardinal Agustín García-Gasco y Vicente, the 80 year-old retired archbishop of Valencia. After participating in the Saturday night vigil, the cardinal went to his eternal reward on that most providential of days, Divine Mercy Sunday.
Certainly, the feast of the Divine Mercy and the occasion that had gathered these immense crowds in the first place played a role in keeping most tempers in check as the discomfort of immobility and extreme crowding increased with the heat from the brilliant sun in a nearly cloudless sky. Even children at the event displayed a heroic patience as they were being hoisted in their stroller over metal barriers, passed with the help of strangers’ hands over the heads of teenagers asleep on the bare ground.
Pilgrims from diverse cultures often looked much the same with bundled cots attached to bulging backpacks and sleep-deprived faces whispering their prayers as they recited the rosary with the rest of their parishioners or pilgrimage group.
When the beatification formula was read by Benedict XVI, announcing that Pope John Paul II was indeed now blessed, the banners and national flags rose and gracefully waved above the heads of the crowd amidst thunderous applause and cheers. A white banner with the words “Deo Gratias” rose to the heavens attached to a string of red helium balloons.
What motivated these modern-day pilgrims to voluntarily undertake a relatively arduous journey and visit to Rome in record numbers was common to all in the crowd encircling the Vatican on Sunday — a personal connection with Blessed John Paul II. They testified through their numbers the influence the new Blessed exercised in those privileged faithful he met in person and the countless others he influenced through his writings and the widespread images of him over his 26 year pontificate.
Over and over the pilgrims mentioned the same qualities that they admired in John Paul II and that opened their hearts to his words — his charisma, his evident passion for Christ and for people, his human touch.
Among the crowds were many individuals who recalled the moment they met Blessed John Paul II and how it influenced their future life choices.
The difference a Pope makes
“My husband, Gerald, and I first met John Paul in 1982 in Rome, and this personal encounter changed our lives,” Sharon Zukauckas of Atlanta, Georgia, shared with ZENIT.
“Pope John Paul II’s holiness radiated his face and entire being. His strong faith and total devotion to Mary drew us closer to Christ and strengthened our faith,” said Sharon, who facilitates bible study in the archdiocese of Atlanta. “Because of this encounter my husband Gerald is now a permanent deacon.
“This beatification was an opportunity to be with others who felt the same towards Our Holy Father and share with one another our personal stories of love for him.”
Another vocation influenced by John Paul II occurred in the life of Father Dominique Ramiriz of Switzerland. “He is my father for the faith. I was 10 years old when he was elected,” Father Ramiriz recounted. “My mother made a big jump when she heard his name as Pope at Vatican Radio. She said, ‘A Polish Pope! Fantastic!’ She jumped maybe one meter above the sofa! My mother explained to me that he was a good man because he always followed his conscience, he was a true man, a man who loved the Truth and was ready to always follow it.
“That made a big impact on me as a child. When I saw him in his car in St. Peter’s Square in 1988 in Rome, I had the first inkling of the vocation, precisely when looking at him.”
Like Father Ramiriz, other members of the John Paul II generation cherish their encounters with John Paul II as pivotal moments in their lives.
“I’m part of the JPII generation, as John Paul II was the Pope for my youth and for as long back as I can remember. I had the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II during a private audience on Jan. 7, 2005,” Ashley Noronha of Springfield, Illinois, told ZENIT.
“It was one of his last public audiences before his death,” she recounted. “I clearly remember the love in his eyes as he blessed me and held my face in his hands. It seemed that he loved me, as his own daughter.
“It was the same feeling that I got from the two World Youth Days that I attended (Rome and Toronto) where he always reminded us to ‘be not afraid’ and told the hundreds of thousands of youth gathered, ‘JPII loves you too!'”
John Paul II’s legacy with the youth was also underlined by Noronha, who works in Rome as a Catholic communications expert: “He had a gift of speaking to the hearts of youth, and his writings on theology of the body, for example, managed to help a whole generation understand human sexuality in a new way.
“It seems like everyone can relate to Pope John Paul II — from young to old, rich to poor, Poles to Americans and Catholics and non — because he showed us all what it means to actually live a life of virtue, and not just talk about it.”
Faith and reason
Ashley’s husband, John Noronha, also noted the power of being in his presence as well as the impact of Pope’s teachings on his thought. “I can still remember how his gaze was so loving and soul piercing — something I will always treasure,” said John, who was trained as both a computer engineer and a theologian. “It was well known that Pope John Paul II had such a great depth of spirituality, but as an engineer, I was especially impressed by his encyclical ‘Fides et Ratio,’ on faith and reason, which seamlessly tied faith and reason to an understanding of who and what the human person is.”
“As a systematic theologian,” John continued, “it is always a treat to see how it is possible to connect the dots among various disciplines, with no contradictions, if one starts with the right foundational principles. Pope John Paul II found ways to integrate the most profound spiritual concepts, not just through a theological lens, but through his mastery of metaphysics and his personalistic philosophy, which was in the spirit of being at the ‘diakonia (service) of the truth’ and always trying to know one’s self to the fullest, at the very core of one’s being, and finding one’s purpose and direction in life through an understanding of one’s nature, origin and ‘telos’ (end).”
Jeannie Guerin, a director of religious education from Alexandria, Virginia, remembers a moment of affection she shared with the Pontiff: “I was gratefully blessed to briefly study in Blessed John Paul’s footsteps at the Angelicum. I give special thanks to the loving and always-attentive Cardinal Dziwisz, along with our beloved Pope, for granting to me the privilege of a private audience with our beloved Pope John Paul II — where I couldn’t resist a kiss on his cheek to the one who so freely kissed those he met with such affection!”
There were also testimonials from pilgrims at the beatification who had never met the blessed and yet nevertheless were influenced in fundamental ways by his teachings and witness. Michael Barnett of Washington, D.C., converted four years ago from “radical atheism,” he told ZENIT. “Seeing the witness and the love of John Paul II was a really compelling argument against an atheist who doesn’t understand why creation exists and doubts the potential of love.”
Michael credits the experience of World Youth Day, begun by John Paul II and continued by Benedict XVI, as crucial to his conversion.
The example of a virtuous life is what makes a saint, but the record numbers of pilgrims present at the beatification were drawn to the combination of qualities that earned John Paul II the moniker “the Great.” It was the simple, personal gestures married to a courageous life story, a curious mind, a deep soul, an unrelenting sense of humor, and a human touch that all contributed to his charisma.
Providentially, John Paul II’s pontificate coincided with the spread of mass media, eventually making him the most recognizable religious leader in the world, thanks to his many photogenic moments and sound-byte ready phrases of wisdom. The result was that even those who had not met him came to feel a deep connection to him and that he did indeed love them. On Sunday those beloveds had the opportunity to stand as witnesses at the rite of his beatification to affirm that “Yes, John Paul II is blessed.”