Cover story -- Church in transition
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  April 22, 2005

Millions say last farewells to John Paul II


World dignitaries, religious leaders and throngs of faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square April 8 to say their final good byes to Pope John Paul II during a ceremony described as the largest funeral ever for a pope and an event that was watched by hundreds of millions around the globe.

Enclosed in a simple wooden coffin, the body of John Paul II was carried on a bier by 12 papal gentlemen from within St. Peter’s Basilica and placed at the head of the square, in front of an altar, as crowds of pilgrims, military generals and tourists looked on under overcast skies. Following in the tradition of Paul VI, an open book of the Gospels was placed on the coffin lid -- its pages turned by the breeze as the funeral progressed.

Behind the casket, the College of Cardinals sat clad in crimson, which according to Roman Catholic tradition symbolizes the blood of Jesus Christ. Other church leaders sat to the right of John Paul II in white vestments. Opposite them sat an audience of equal proportion that included kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers from the secular world, most of whom dressed in black. The congregation, which included, for example, President George W. Bush, leading the U.S. delegation, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Israeli President Moshe Katzav, made strange bedfellows.

“Follow me,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, said in a homily that in somber tones drew parallels between St. Peter’s willingness to follow Jesus Christ and John Paul II’s journey from the grip of tyrannical dictatorships in Poland to the seat of Roman Catholicism’s highest office. He recalled well-known moments from the pontiff’s youth, from his days working in a chemical plant under the Nazi occupation and from his years as a clandestine seminarian in communist Poland.

Under John Paul II, Ratzinger was the Vatican’s top theological watchdog and is on many papabili lists.

Throughout the Mass lay men and women gave readings in English, Italian, French, German, Swahili, Tagalog, Portuguese, Spanish and Polish -- the latter being the pontiff’s native tongue.

“This was Roman rite at its best,” said Fr. Jeremy Driscoll, author of What Happens at Mass and a theology professor at the University of Sant’Anselmo in Rome. “It drives slowly into you and you get into a different kind of space, a spiritual space.”

As the funeral came to a close, applause erupted throughout the square and resounded through the throng that filled Via della Conciliazione, the main avenue leading to St. Peter’s Square. It continued for seven minutes.

Holy water was sprinkled on the coffin, which was then lifted and rotated toward the crowd for a final farewell to the pontiff, intensifying the applause and chanting.

The coffin was then carried back through the basilica’s curtained entrance for a private ceremony among church officials. Following that ceremony, the coffin was carried down into the basilica crypt, the traditional papal burial site. There it was placed inside a metal-lined wooden casket.

As stipulated in John Paul II’s will, he was buried “in the earth” beneath a simple stone tablet in the tradition of Pope John XXIII, who was beatified by John Paul II.

Stacy Meichtry is a freelance writer living in Rome.

National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: