April 22, 2005

Be Our Guest

Reflections on the Mass of Christian Burial
for Pope John Paul II

By Daniel Conway

ROME—Thousands are gathered in St. Peter’s Square this morning [April 8] for the funeral liturgy for Pope John Paul II. Many more wait outside the Vatican. We are here to pray for the repose of the soul of Karol Wojtyla and to commend his body to the Lord. We thank God for the gift of this pope’s life and ministry. We pray that his words and his example will continue to teach, to inspire and to challenge long after he has returned to his heavenly home.

It’s hard to believe that there are any Italians who are not in St. Peter’s Square this morning (or any Poles left in Poland). Absolutely everyone seems to be here! The streets of Rome were empty this morning as I walked to the Vatican. Only official vehicles were allowed on the streets so an eerie silence—broken occasionally by ambulance or police sirens—hovered over the city like a dense morning fog. Only when I reached the Tiber River and crossed over to the Vatican did it become clear where all the people were.

I am seated with journalists, and many others, on risers high above the Bernini columns looking down on the altar in front of the basilica. I can see the clergy assembled right below us, and I have a clear view of the religious leaders and other dignitaries who have come to honor Pope John Paul II.

An hour before the service begins, the entire square is filled to overflowing. Only the most important dignitaries and the cardinals who will concelebrate the funeral Mass are still to come. Organ music fills the square along with the constant low chatter of people speaking quietly in many different languages. Occasionally, spontaneous shouts of joy or sung chants erupt from the groups of pilgrims who have traveled many miles to be here. Overhead, Italian military helicopters pass over the square enforcing the “no fly zone” established by the Italian government as a security ­measure.

Finally, the ceremony begins. The bells have tolled for 15 minutes. Everyone is in place. The choir begins to chant, and the procession emerges from the basilica. The simple cypress coffin, which contains the body of Pope John Paul II, is carried by the pallbearers to its place of honor in front of the outdoor altar that has been erected on a huge platform in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. The cardinals follow in procession. They reverence the altar and take their places. The dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Bavaria, who is the principle celebrant, proclaims the opening prayer.

The liturgy proceeds with an elegant simplicity. This is fitting, of course, for a pope’s funeral, but it is also something that Pope John Paul II took seriously. The pope believed that the Eucharist is truly a “sacred banquet” in which the simplicity of the signs conceals what he called “the unfathomable holiness of God.”

Solemnity and simplicity come together in this funeral Mass. Following the introductory prayers and the singing of the Kyrie, the Liturgy of the Word is celebrated. The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, is read in Spanish. The responsorial psalm is chanted in Latin, and a second reading is read in English. Later on, following the homily and the Creed, prayers will be offered in French, Swahili, Filipino, Polish, German and Portuguese. While Latin remains the official language of the Church, and of this funeral Mass, there is a deliberate attempt to recognize and reflect the cultural diversity of the Church.

Pope John Paul II was keenly aware of the importance of local languages and customs, and he was a strong proponent of national pride and ethnic heritage. But he was also a powerful advocate for unity in the Church and in the world community. In the face of grave international crises and bitter regional conflicts, he forcefully reminded us all that we are one family of God—distinct as individuals and local communities, but united in our common humanity as children of God and sisters and brothers to all.

The proclamation of the Gospel includes the words of Jesus to the Apostle Peter. Three times, the Lord asks, “Do you love me?” And each time, Peter responds with growing intensity, “Lord, you know that I love you!” To which Jesus replies: “Feed my sheep.”

The image of the Good Shepherd was especially important to Pope John Paul II. He took seriously the Lord’s admonition that, “The good shepherd knows his sheep, and they know him.” He personally encountered millions of people all over the world. And yet he longed to know each and every one of us personally!

Following the Gospel, Cardinal Ratzinger delivers the homily in Italian. I am only able to pick up occasional words or phrases, but the Italian nun sitting next to me enthusiastically endorses everything the cardinal is saying. Along with thousands of others, she regularly interrupts the homily with applause.

Afterward, the choir intones the Credo. What we believe is a mystery that is totally incomprehensible to us. But throughout human history, God has revealed to us who God is, who we are called to be, and how the Church is the sign and instrument of God’s grace in the unfolding history of our salvation. We declare our faith in the Triune God and in the mission of the one, holy and apostolic Church.

Pope John Paul II was a passionate believer. He saw the entire history of the human race as a journey toward holiness. The pope was eager to help us understand that holiness is not “some kind of extraordinary existence possible only for a few uncommon heroes.” He insisted that “the ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual.”

The Creed is followed by prayers. Recited in various languages, and following the proscribed ritual of the Roman liturgy, these prayers also express what is in the hearts of people everywhere who thank God for the life and ministry of Pope John Paul II, and who long for the peace of Christ in our individual lives, and in our families, local communities and world.

As the gifts of bread and wine are prepared, the choir sings. The echoes of this plainsong chant fill the immensity of the square and reverberate through the loudspeakers. The coffin, the altar and the assembly are reverenced with incense. Everywhere you look, there are vivid liturgical vestments, flags and banners that fill the square with color.

There is nothing sentimental about this funeral service, but all the individual elements of this ancient ritual (the sights and sounds and smells) come together to produce a profoundly moving and emotional effect on those of us who are gathered here this morning. We are an immense multitude of diverse people who represent all ages, races, and nationalities—and all social, political and economic circumstances. But we are united now, by the grace of God, in our admiration and respect for this one man.

It is nearly impossible to describe the powerful effect that being here has on the thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square. Television makes it possible for millions throughout the world to share in this experience, but it cannot be like being here. On TV, everything is ­organized neatly into a particular point of view—close-ups of Cardinal Ratzinger preaching the homily, wide-angle shots of the cardinals gathered around the altar, aerial views of the enormous crowds. But none of this can convey the overwhelming sense of awe that I feel being here in the midst of this multitude.

I can honestly say that I have never experienced anything like this before. Grief, and an overwhelming sense of this pope’s absence, is combined with joy and reverent awe at the power of this simple liturgy to express these profound emotions and, at the same time, to point beyond them to the holiness of God!

The ritual of the Church seeks to make this experience of mystery accessible to us every day in the celebration of the Eucharist. Obviously, it would not be possible (or even desirable) to recreate the feelings we are experiencing today. But the mystery is the same. In every Mass, no matter where it is celebrated, no matter who attends, and no matter what the occasion may be, the holiness of God is presented to us in all its unfathomability. And—even more wondrously—in every Mass, God shares himself with us in the most intimate way possible through the gift of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion.

Pope John Paul II was deeply devoted to the Eucharist. He once wrote about his more than 50 years as a priest celebrating the Eucharist, “For over half a century, every day …. my faith has been able to recognize in the consecrated bread and wine the divine Wayfarer who joined the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and opened their eyes to the light and their hearts to new hope.”

The Sanctus proclaims the holiness of God. I wonder what it means to be holy (as God is holy). I know that Jesus is the answer to this question (and all important questions). He was holy because there was no discrepancy between what he said and what he did. He was a fully integrated, authentic and sinless human being. Because he was both God and man, the holiness of God could be seen in his eyes, and the love of God could be experienced in his presence and his healing touch.

Throughout St. Peter’s Square, there are placards carried by pilgrims that contain only one word: Santo. This is the Italian word for saint—someone whose life reflects the holiness of God. Do the people who are carrying these placards believe that the Holy Father was a saint? Are they lobbying to have “Papa Wojtyla” canonized? Or are they simply exclaiming, as we do in the Sanctus, that anyone who walks in the footsteps of the Lord will be truly blessed?

The eucharistic prayer continues in the solemn tones of the Latin liturgy. Through Christ, we ask our most ­merciful Father to accept the gifts that we offer. We ask for peace and salvation, and we humbly ask to be considered among those God has chosen to carry out the mission entrusted by Christ to his disciples. We pray that the sacrifice we offer now may become for us the body and blood of Christ.

Pope John Paul II found God in the daily celebration of the Eucharist, and he led millions of people in all regions of the world to intimate communion with Christ.

“The Eucharistic sacrifice is intrinsically directed to the inward union of the faithful with Christ through communion,” he says. “We receive the very One who offered himself for us; we receive his body which he gave up for us on the cross and his blood which he poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

This pope was holy because his entire life (all his words and actions) reflected his own personal search for God and his absolute confidence that the best place to encounter Christ is in the holy Eucharist.

This is the mysterium fidei, the most profound ­mystery of our Christian faith: that one man’s death and resurrection have liberated us from sin and death. And that we are invited to participate in this ineffable mystery in the most intimate way possible through this great sacrament of Communion with Christ.

As the pope says, “We can say not only that each of us receives Christ, but also that Christ receives each of us. He enters into friendship with us …. eucharistic Communion brings about in a sublime way the mutual ‘abiding’ of Christ and each of his followers: ‘Abide in me, and I in you’ (Jn. 15:4).”

As the eucharistic prayer continues, hundreds of priests wearing white surpluses and stoles over their black cassocks silently rise and begin to move toward the front doors of the basilica. These are the ministers who will distribute Communion to this immense assembly of people. What they will do is no less miraculous than the disciples distributing a few loaves and fish to a vast multitude. What these ministers of Holy Communion will distribute is the miracle of Christ’s body and blood wholly and completely present to each person who receives him.

It is now time to pray for the deceased. We ask God to grant the Holy Father, and all who sleep in Christ, all the blessings of his light and his peace. Finally, we pray for ourselves. Through the intercession of the Apostles, martyrs and all the saints, we implore our merciful Father to look beyond our sins to the faith of the Church, and to grant us the forgiveness of our sins in Jesus’ name.

The eucharistic prayer concludes with the Great Doxology. This exultant hymn of praise says it all. Everything that is good and holy, all that our hearts truly desire, are made possible through, with and in Christ.

As the pope says so forcefully, “Every commitment to holiness, every activity aimed at carrying out the Church’s mission, every work of pastoral planning, must draw the strength it needs from the eucharistic mystery and in turn be directed to that mystery as its culmination.”

The kiss of peace follows the Lord’s Prayer. Through­out the immensity of St. Peter’s Square, one person after another turns to his or her neighbor and offers the sign of peace. I shake hands with the Italian nun, and with a Polish student wearing a mantle that says “solidarity,” and with a very dapper and urbane looking Italian journalist. Cardinals are offering each other the sign of peace. So are the foreign dignitaries and religious leaders. And all the pilgrims (adults, youth and children). Peace is the fruit of communion and fraternal respect. It is what all of us long for, but it is so very difficult for us to achieve.

Pope John Paul II was a powerful advocate for peace. He repeatedly spoke out against the folly and the horrors of war. He challenges world leaders—individually and through the United Nations—to abandon the culture of death and to choose life, to develop just and lasting processes for dealing with international and regional conflicts, to make war unthinkable: No war! War never again!

We sing the Agnus Dei and implore the Lamb of God to bring us mercy—and peace. The Holy Father was a man of peace, but he was not naïve. Having lived through nazism and communism in his native Poland, he was fully aware of the evil we human beings are capable of inflicting on one another. He begged us to look to the peace of Christ for the resolution of all our differences and for the firmest possible foundation on which to build a true and lasting peace.

Communion is distributed to all the faithful who are gathered here in the pope’s memory. John Paul II is now joined to his Lord in a more perfect way through the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, but he still invites us (and challenges us) to see that we, too, can be one with Christ in this holy Eucharist.

The scene is a reverent chaos—more than 150,000 people moving patiently toward one of the 600 priests who are distributing Communion then trying to find their way back again. By rights, it should last a very long time, but somehow it doesn’t. After 26 years of John Paul II, the Vatican has mastered the fine art of crowd control!

After Communion, the deceased pope receives his final commendation to the Lord. We pray that the Triune God, whom he worshiped and served so faithfully, will grant him peace and reunite him with his earthly body on the Last Day. We beg the intercession of Mary, who was loved so deeply by Karol Wojtyla. The Litany of Saints is chanted on behalf of the Diocese of Rome, which has lost its bishop, the successor of St. Peter. Then, in a final gesture of unity, specifically requested by the pope, the patriarchs, archbishops and metropolitans of the eastern rite join the cardinals in paying their final respects to the Bishop of Rome.

At last, the simple cypress coffin is blessed with holy water and incense as the choir affirms our faith in the Resurrection. We pray for the Holy Father one last time then commend him to God.

The pallbearers, who are supposed to carry the coffin back into the basilica, pause and turn toward the crowd in St. Peter’s Square in a final gesture of greeting from the Holy Father to those who have come to pray with him one last time. The crowd erupts: “Santo! Il papa! Karol! Giovanni Paulo il Grande!”

The pope’s body is brought into the basilica, where it would be interred in the crypt near the tomb of St. Peter. The cardinals and the dignitaries follow. Slowly, the crowd begins to disperse. A feeling of profound hope descends on the square as tears mingle with joyful sighs and grief gives way to a sense of inner peace.

I am exhausted before I begin my walk back to the hotel, but I decide it’s best to keep going and not get caught in the crowd. As I walk, I pass posters containing images of Pope John Paul II on the sides of buildings throughout the city: Roma piange e salute il suo papa! (Rome weeps and salutes its holy father!) And Grazie, Santo Padre, per tua diocesa (Thank you, Holy Father, from your diocese).

The world wept today and hailed John Paul II as a good and holy man. Thank you, Holy Father. The whole world was your mission, and we are deeply grateful for your ministry of faith, hope and profound love!

(Daniel Conway, a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc., was in Rome for the pope’s funeral.)

Local site Links: