Seminarians among faithful to mourn pope
Trio share their personal accounts of pontiff's funeral
Editor's note: Three seminarians from the Green Bay Diocese, Joel Sember, Ben Sember and Mike Brummond are studying in Rome. They sent The Compass their thoughts on Pope John Paul II's funeral:
On April 3, the body of the Holy Father was moved to the Basilica for viewing. In a short time, a line had formed. I came down with some friends at 4 a.m. We found a line which filled two streets and looped onto a third. Seven hours later, we rounded a corner and could see St. Peter's. By 1 p.m. we were inside the Piazza. Finally, 11 hours later, I got my 15 seconds to pass in front of the body and pay my respects.
Seeing his body was not worth the wait. But I came to thank the pope for his long years of service, for his blessings for the church, for coming to Toronto for World Youth Day when he was old and tired, for the "Happy Christmas" he wished me in December when he could hardly talk, for his prayers and his writings and his sufferings.
I would have waited even longer. The rest of the people seemed to have the same attitude. The line was quiet, almost prayerful. People said little and never raised their voices. No one pushed. I have never seen anything like it. Once, in St. Peter's Piazza two people started arguing. The people shushed them and said, "We're here to honor the pope." And the line went quiet again. It was a miracle of reverence.
The city had gone crazy. It was full of people from everywhere and more were coming. There were police all around St. Peter's. Busses were taking strange routes and stopping where there were no stops. I walked near St. Peter's the night before the funeral. Kids had camped out in the streets hoping for a spot in St. Peter's. People were sleeping wrapped in Spanish flags; a group was singing songs in French; Polish groups were extracting themselves from small cars after hours of driving; and I saw sisters walk by with a Brazilian flag.
I did not camp out. Our choir director at the North American College works at St. Peter's and he got tickets for some of us that got us through four lines of security. We sat in the atrium behind the grill to the right of St. Peter's main door. We were the second-level choir that did the responses. We saw the procession in and out and we saw the coffin. During Mass, we could not see anything. But we got to participate in the Mass, which was a beautiful celebration. So many things are only events on TV. Because I was in Rome, John Paul's death happened to me. I can hardly believe he is gone. Fortunately, thanks to the Communion of Saints, the dead are not really gone.
The afternoon after the funeral, rain began to fall. It cleaned the streets of pilgrims and of the trash they left behind. I am reminded of what John Paul II wrote about the conclave: "The universal church, spiritually united with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, should persevere with one heart in prayer; thus the election of the new pope will not be something unconnected with the People of God and concerning the college of electors alone, but will be in a certain sense an act of the whole church." Pray for our cardinals as they elect our new Vicar of Christ on Earth.
I did not plan to go to St. Peter's for the funeral of John Paul II. The crowds were predicted to be of epic proportions, and the only tickets were for priests to distribute Communion. However, I discovered that the choir had received 30 tickets, to form a secondary chorus for Mass. Unfortunately, I haven't been in choir since the deacon ordination in October. However, I put on a cassock and trailed behind our seminarians.
Being with the choir, and three monsignors, allowed me to pass the first police barrier. When the choir went left, I went straight, and passed the second police barrier with a crowd of assorted clerics. I made my way through security and into the piazza. I was fortunate to be near the front of the left arm of the piazza, just where it begins to open into a circle. I was 20 feet from a large video screen and not far from the barrier. The view was excellent.
It was two hours before Mass, but the section quickly filled. It felt like standing in a subway car; I had little room to turn or move and I was beginning to feel warm from the body heat around me. Normally a papal mass is filled with tourists and curiosity seekers who chat with friends or talk on cell phones. Today, everyone in the piazza wanted to be there, to see and hear what was going on.
The Mass began and the cardinals, vested in red, kissed the altar and took their places. Pallbearers brought out the casket of John Paul II, a simple wooden box marked on top with the cross and M for Mary. The crowd erupted in applause.
The entire piazza and adjoining street was full and it shimmered with excitement. Flags of Poland and many other nations poked above the crowd and waved enthusiastically. Card. Joseph Ratzinger incensed the altar, and the smoke gushed out in the wind. The first reading was read in Spanish by Alejandra from Miami. The second reading was read by John McDonald, a seminarian from Birmingham, Ala. The Gospel was chanted in Latin. As the deacon began, wind whipped around him and the Gospel book. I smiled, because wind is a symbol for the Holy Spirit.
Card. Ratzinger preached a magnificent homily in Italian on the words in John's Gospel, where Christ says to Peter, "Do you love me? Feed my sheep" and "Follow me."
Card. Ratzinger said when John Paul II decided to abandon his love of theater and become a seminarian, it was because he heard the words of Christ, "Follow me." When he was called to give up his parish work and youth ministry to become a bishop, he again heard the words of Christ, "Follow me." When he was elected pope, he again heard in the call of the church, the words of Christ, "Follow me."
He mentioned the last Sunday when Pope John Paul II appeared in the window of his apartment to bless the people. The pope, he said, is certainly at the window of the house of the Father, and he sees us and he blesses us today. The assembly in the piazza applauded often. It was obvious that they were paying close attention.
The Eucharistic prayer was beautiful. They used the Roman canon which invokes the intercession of the early popes and the early Roman martyrs. It was beautiful to think that John Paul II is part of the history of holiness in the city of Rome. It was beautiful to think that, in this Mass and in every Mass, we are joined with all the Christians throughout the world and with all the saints and angels, who not only surround God in Heaven but pray for us here on earth.
At the end of Mass, the pallbearers slowly carried the coffin into the basilica. The crowd broke into applause that went on and on. Everyone wanted to say goodbye, wanted to say thank you, we love you, we will miss you, pray for us. It was like the theater, where the audience applauds for another curtain call. The moment was so beautiful. No one wanted to say the last goodbye and let John Paul go to his resting place. The casket disappeared into the basilica amidst chants and cheers.
I am full of joy. It was such a beautiful experience. It makes me smile to think that in a few weeks I can go to St. Peter's and pray in front of the tomb of our beloved Holy Father. Now he will have time to greet all of us and listen to all of us, and to give each of us his blessing. Pope John Paul the Great, pray for us!
When I arrived in Rome nine months ago to continue my seminary studies, I had no idea I would be among the millions who stood in seemingly endless lines to view the Holy Father's body, and I was united with the estimated billions who viewed his funeral. In a sense, the whole world turned its attention to this extraordinary man.
There is something deep in the human heart that reacts to a man like John Paul II. Whether one stood in those lines out of religious devotion or mere curiosity, something drew each one of those people to him. The life of John Paul II was like an utterly transparent image of Christ. He was a walking, talking, breathing icon of the love of Jesus for his church. He made a complete gift of himself in love to Christ and his church, both through his life and through his death. No wonder people found him so compelling: He was a living saint. By daily living the Paschal Mystery, he became an example to us of what genuine humanity, redeemed in Christ, can look like. His example, and the world's response, is a striking testimony to the power of the Gospel in human affairs.
Our Holy Father was an extraordinary man. Nevertheless, he taught us that holiness should not be extra-ordinary, but the primary goal of all. We are all called to be saints. Perhaps God raised up a man like our pope to inspire millions more to strive for holiness. Just imagine a world, or your own neighborhood, filled with saints like John Paul II. As we mourn the loss of our Holy Father, and the world focuses its attention on him, perhaps his example will be the motivation for many to give themselves more fully to Christ and his church.