By Ann Schneible
ROME, APRIL 30, 2012 (Zenit.org).- It was one year ago today that the city of Rome was overtaken with pilgrims from around the world who had come to witness the beatification of John Paul II.
Through the night and well into the early morning hours of May 1, 2011, the city center was a flood of people praying, singing, and waving the flags of their countries. Thousands of pilgrims waited the entire night just to enter the streets that surround St. Peter’s Basilica, for these remained barricaded until early in the morning. When the gates were finally opened, many did not even make it into the Square, but rather filled Via della Conciliazione from St. Peter’s to Castel Sant’Angelo and beyond.
Rebecca Pawloski, a student of theology in her seventh year at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, attended the beatification of John Paul II last year. She shared her experience of the beatification with ZENIT, and spoke about the role Blessed John Paul II played in her life.
For Pawloski, the writings of Blessed John Paul II played a key role in her life as a teenager. “Pope John Paul II,” she explained, “was the hero of my high school years. At the time when I was preparing for confirmation I took a serious look at saints who could be my role model, and there was no one else like him: lover of nature, of theatre and of man, not afraid to follow his conscience in the face of danger, not afraid to practice rugged purity in love.”
In 2004, Pawloski had the opportunity to meet Blessed John Paul II in person. She recounts: “I had one thing to ask: ‘Holy Father, when you are in heaven, will you stay with us, your children, on earth?’ He responded, ‘You are speaking in English’. (I had asked in English, he had just been speaking in Polish.) I know it could seem impetuous, but I repeated my question: ‘Holy Father, when you are in heaven will you stay with your spiritual children, you know, like St. Therese, Padre Pio…’ he smiled yes. He blessed me. I went on my way.”
In 2005, Rebecca began her studies at the Lateran University (“which,” she said, “Pope John Paul II himself had affectionately called ‘the University of the Pope'”).
“I would never have dreamed I would be able to be at his beatification last year,” she continued, “let alone present as a resident of Rome welcoming the pilgrim tide. It was not easy; anyone who lives in Rome more than a month knows the stress involved when everyone you know and love seems to show up at once, when everyone would like to get an inside scoop – where to go and how to get there fastest.”
Caught amid the chaos of more than a million pilgrims eager to participate in the beatification of their beloved pontiff, there was nonetheless a certain international camaraderie to be found. “I was with Italian natives at the beatification Mass,” she recalls, “as well as among French, Mexicans, Polish, Slovaks, Russians, North and South Americans, and even Franciscan University of Steubenville students from Austria who came on a turn-around trip for these few hours, all of us witnessing the Mass from behind Castel Sant’Angelo because we had not calculated the Via Conciliazione road block. At first I was anxiously trying to go further forward. But soon I accepted to be stuck in the crushed pilgrim pack, grateful for a bit of shade, a jumbo-screen, and a half meter’s space to sit.”
“And then,” she concluded, “there was grace. On the screen were some of my seminarian classmates from the Lateran serving the Mass. There was nothing to stop it: tears flowed as they read John Paul II’s biography. Together with those around me we lived the Mass as intensely as if we had been at the front. I prayed to my dear spiritual father thanking him for being with me, with us. I made sure I prayed in Italian to show him I had made some progress since the first time we met.”