Rome — Two hours before the Mass of beatification for Pope John Paul II began on May 1, I looked up from our NBC platform near the Castel Sant’Angelo and saw a solid mass of humanity stretching in every direction: all the way up the length of the Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s; across the Tiber bridges and along the Lungotevere; around Hadrian’s tomb; spilling out past the Piazza Risorgimento. And the thought occurred: “There are a million people here who not only think this beatification wasn’t a ‘rush job’; they think it couldn’t have happened fast enough.” The voice of the Church’s people, which had been acclaiming John Paul’s heroic virtue since those cries of Santo subito! erupted at the end of his funeral Mass on April 8, 2005, was the voice of truth in all of this; those tiny, carping noises from the likes of Maureen Dowd, Hans Küng, and Richard McBrien had resonance only because they bounced around for a few days inside the world-media echo chamber.
The global Catholic family had gathered around John Paul II once again, as it had six years and 23 days before. Then, the task was to send him to his reward. Now, in a certain way, the task was to welcome him back and thank God for the gifts that had come to the world through his prayers for us at the Throne of Grace.
A QUESTION OF IMAGES
Four and a half weeks before Rome (in its semi-chaotic way) welcomed 1.5 million pilgrims determined to share in the largest beatification ceremony in history, I visited the Postulator of John Paul II’s cause, Msgr. Slawomir Oder, in his small office at the Vicariate of Rome, next door to the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Monsignor Oder, a Polish canon lawyer, had become a friend of mine over the past several years, and we were going to lunch together. After catching up a bit, he said he wanted to ask my opinion of something and showed me three photos. One of them would be selected as the pattern for the tapestry portrait of Blessed John Paul II that would be unveiled on the loggia of St. Peter’s just after Pope Benedict XVI pronounced the words of beatification. “Which would you choose?” Msgr. Oder asked.
I thought two of the pictures, from the pope’s last years, were inappropriate, being neither good photography nor very compelling. But the third, taken in 1989 by the Polish photographer Grzegorz Gałązka, was perfect: The pope had that characteristic slightly impish twinkle in his eye; his white zucchetto was a bit off-center, in a typical expression of his utter indifference to ecclesiastical finery; he showed some of the wear and tear of what was, at that point, an eleven-year-old pontificate that had changed the world and the Church decisively, but the ravages of Parkinson’s disease were still a few years in the future. It was him as I certainly wanted to remember him. So I said to Msgr. Oder, “I think this one.”
Oder smiled and said, “Good. That’s the one I’ve been pushing for, too,” evidently against some resistance from other quarters.
And that was indeed the image that was unveiled from the loggia where John Paul II had presented himself urbi et orbi, to the city and the world, on the night of his election, October 16, 1978. I don’t know whether my “vote” had any effect — it almost certainly didn’t — but the thunderous response from the hundreds of thousands who could see the tapestry suggested that this was what they, too, would have chosen: John Paul II at the top of his game, vibrantly alive, a wonderful human being who gave others courage because his courage came from the far side of Calvary. And I thought of the comment of the late André Frossard, a French writer who, having converted to Catholicism from the fashionable agnosticism of his class, had become a friend and interlocutor of John Paul II. Shortly after John Paul’s election, Frossard wired back to the Paris newspaper for which he was writing, “This isn’t a pope from Poland; this is a pope from Galilee.”
A TALE OF TWO WOMEN
The unveiling of the portrait — which seemed to bring John Paul back to us, somehow — was one emotional apogee of the three-hour beatification ceremony. The other came immediately afterward, when two women brought a relic of the new beatus, a vial of his blood in a silver reliquary, up to Pope Benedict for him to venerate. One was Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a French nun from a pro-life order that serves women and newborns in crisis pregnancy and maternity situations; her inexplicable cure from Parkinson’s disease had been accepted by the Church, after review by a panel of doctors, as the miracle that confirmed John Paul II’s heroic virtue. The other was Sister Tobiana Sobodka, who had worked in John Paul’s household since his days as archbishop of Cracow.