A Death in Rome by Francisco Schulte, OSB


I was at St. Peter’s Square and in the basilica with some guests the evening before the pope died; we had gone there to tour the church and, of course, to pray for him at the tomb of his predecessor, Peter the Fisherman. The crowds were extraordinarily immense, even for Easter time. They kept vigil under the pope’s third-floor window: prayerful, sorrowful-and-joyful-at-the-same-time. There were tears, of course, but also so many expressions of what I can only describe as joyous Easter faith. Plus, there were legions of young people singing to the Pope, chanting, “JP Two — we love you!” loudly, in the hopes that he could hear them if he were still conscious. People were all over the square on their knees, quietly at prayer or praying the rosary in groups in every language you can imagine. Quite an image.

While I wasn’t there when the pope died, my friend Bob Mickens (who worked for years at Vatican Radio and is now the Rome correspondent for the Tablet magazine) was there praying. He told me, “I turned off my damned cell phone and went to St. Peter’s Square so I could participate in this event like one of the faithful — praying. “He called me from the square as soon as the crowd was informed of the pope’s death and described the scene. As the pope’s death was announced to the 50,000-plus people in the square, many dropped to their knees; most of them spontaneously broke out into waves of quiet, loving applause for the Pope. It’s a typically Italian thing to do (like waving handkerchiefs as the casket passes): so very moving to me; so very human; so very warm. And so very right, it seems. Then they sang the Easter hymn to the Blessed Virgin in Latin, the “Regina Coeli,” led by one of the curial officials. I guess that no matter what anyone may have felt about JP II’s theology and internal governance of the Church during his life, at the end he was simply a sick, elderly man, much like someone’s beloved grandfather, who was attempting to die with serenity and dignity — and with enormous Christian faith.

Maybe his last gift to us all was to choose to do so in the public eye, at home, as a witness to how a Christian can die: surrounded by the love and prayers of the ones he cared about most, requesting to hear the Scriptures read to him along with the Divine Office and the Way of the Cross. And so he slipped away from us. In the back of my mind I remember someone at Lincoln’s deathbed saying, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Amen.

Meanwhile, this city went totally, unbelievably crazy. There have never, ever been such crowds here before — nor, perhaps, anywhere else, either. Bob Mickens said that the closest thing he can remember, from the days when he traveled with the pope for Vatican Radio, was the crowd of about 4-million people gathered at Mass to see the pope when he went to the Philippines some years ago. But Rome city officials estimated something like 5-million — or more — in the city for the funeral. I simply can’t describe what it’s been like here. You truly would have had to see it and experience it to grasp the immensity of it all.

A few million people arrived in the first few days after the Pope’s death — and millions more came at the very end. For example, the Polish government had warned the Italian officials that an estimated 2 million Poles alone had left for Rome at the last minute in car, bus, train, and plane. And then there were over a million people just in the line to see the pope’s body the last day when city police finally called an end to joining the line at 10:00 pm Wednesday, in order to allow those in line to arrive at the basilica by late Thursday evening.

They obviously also needed time to clean up the mess from all the people (unbelievable), set up the piazza for the funeral, conduct major security sweeps, etc. You can only imagine how concerned everyone was here about protecting all the cardinals, bishops, world leaders, and assorted hundreds of thousands of “common faithful” at that Mass. There were helicopters buzzing overhead, battleships off the coast, and AWAC planes flying in the area, not to mention anti-aircraft missile stations on alert around the city. All traffic had been forbidden anywhere inside the Great Ring highway that encircles the city of Rome, and throughout the entire city, from 2:00 am until 6:00 pm Friday, the day of the funeral, no cars, no buses, no vehicles — only bikes and motorbikes. Period. Anyone going to the funeral had to walk or take public transportation, except the VIPs with special Vatican passes to the funeral or Italian officials, and such.

I had fully intended to attend the funeral, since we had two sign-up lists here for those of us requesting tickets to attend, one list for those willing to assist with the distribution of Communion at the Mass and another list for those who simply wished to attend. Both lists were forwarded to the papal liturgy office, run by Archbishop Marini, the pope’s master of ceremonies, who’s a Sant’ Anselmo alumnus and who still teaches courses here. But there was no timely response; so Prior Michael [Naughton] put a note on the board saying we wouldn’t get tickets after all. Basically, that meant: “Forget it, folks!” Imagine the scene: roughly a million people fighting over the “choice” 100,000 SRO spots (“first come, first served”) in the piazza — plus every possible spot to stand in the streets outside of the piazza. It had the potential to be absolute, total, perfect pandemonium, so I didn’t bother trying to get in and gladly watched on TV, like almost everyone else did. At Sant’ Anselmo, we had a couple of recreation rooms with TVs and watched together. It was actually very prayerful.

In the end, there were “only” 600,000 people present in and around St. Peter’s Square for the funeral, while the other millions watched it on TV at home or on the giant screens set up in stadiums, major squares, the Circus Maximus, and the like. At those gathering places, the crowds were even provided with confessors and with Communion, too. (God only knows who confected it, or when and where they did so.). Each viewing spot became a sort of “extension” of St. Peter’s.

On Italian TV the day after the funeral, one of the journalists made an interesting comment. He said that for the funeral of JP II, the entire city of Rome became, in effect, “the world’s largest open-air church.” Impressive beyond words. I suspect that there’s never been anything like this single event — ever. It was a very moving tribute to the man, of course. But it’s also something that will eventually require some informed interpretation. Many of the people who lined up to honor JP II, for example, probably don’t attend church or put into practice many of the doctrines that he taught so firmly and so unequivocally. What brought them here from all over the world by the millions, many of them not Christians? What kind of long-term impact, if any, will all this have on their faith and their lives when they return to their routines? I told Bob Mickens that I’ll look forward to a good, searching analysis of this “JP II phenomenon” later on in the Tablet when the dust clears from the election and when people are able to reflect back calmly on this extraordinary event, asking “What did it all mean, especially in the long run?”

With the funeral and burial over, the city has slowly returned to “normal” — though there are now thousands and thousands of people lined up outside St. Peter’s early each morning to visit JP II’s tomb. The reporters are still encamped all over the place, hoping for a juicy tidbit from some indiscreet “well-placed Vatican source” prior to the Conclave, but they’re getting precious little since the cardinals en masse decided on a press blackout. They’re pretty frustrated and are impatiently waiting for the 18th, when they lock up the guys in red and begin to focus their lenses on the smokestack of the Sistine Chapel.

Perhaps you might like to read some reflections regarding positive impressions I’ve had of the new pope, in particular, related to his startling choice of the name Benedict. From what Benedict XVI himself has said since the election, he chose the name for a variety of reasons.

He apparently reminded the cardinals immediately after his election that his predecessor Benedict XV had a rather brief (and not entirely successful) pontificate — and that he, Papa Ratzinger, fully expected to have a similarly brief one.

He made known his deep admiration for his predecessor’s tireless efforts, albeit fruitless, to make peace throughout the course of WW I, as well as his efforts to bring peace to an internally divided Church following Pius X’s efforts to smash the proponents of “Modernism,” etc.

The current Benedict also admires Benedict XV’s pioneering efforts at promoting ecumenism, in particular his genuine love and concern for the Eastern Churches.

But perhaps the main reason for his choosing the name Benedict at this time is his personal admiration for our own founder, St. Benedict, as Patron of Europe. Benedict XVI, from his own writings and periodic statements, is tremendously concerned about the need for a new evangelization of Europe. In a recent (and little reported) discourse, he gave some insights into his way of thinking about St. Benedict. Those insights are very encouraging to me, so I thought I’d share them with you. Read on.

On April 1st, the night prior to JP II’s death, Cardinal Ratzinger quietly slipped away from the crowds at the Vatican and went out to the Abbey of Santa Scolastica at Subiaco. There he received the St. Benedict Award (Premio San Benedetto) from Abbot Mauro Meacci in conjunction with a local Subiaco organization that promotes family life. Then Cardinal Ratzinger took that opportunity to present a 12-page (!) discourse entitled (my loose translation): “Europe in the Crisis of the Cultures.” The final page laid out his personal reflections on the significance of Saint Benedict today. He said (pardon this quick translation),

We have need of men like Benedict of Norcia, who, in a time of dissipation and of decadence, immersed himself in the most extreme kind of solitude and who, after all the purifications that he had to undergo, was able to re-emerge into the light . . . to found Monte Cassino, the “city on the hill.” From the midst of its ruins . . . he drew together the forces from which a new world was formed. Thus Benedict, like Abraham, became the father of many peoples. The advice to his monks, placed at the end of his Rule, is directions that also show us the way that leads on high, out of the crises and out of the debris: ‘Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting. This zeal, therefore, the monks should practice with the most fervent love. Thus they should anticipate one another in honor; most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; vie in paying obedience one to another — no one following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another — ; tender the charity of brotherhood chastely; fear God in love; love their Abbot with a sincere and humble charity; prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!” [trans. Leonard Doyle].

Imagine! Ratzinger quotes Chapter 72 in full to conclude his discourse. Amazing. In the opinion of Cardinal Ratzinger, St. Benedict, the Patron of Europe, is the man of the hour who even now can “show us the way that leads on high, out of the crises and out of the debris.” I was impressed, and deeply moved, by his choice of Chapter 72. First of all because he could certainly have chosen any number of “law and order” type quotations from the Rule. One could easily (read “stereotypically”) have expected Ratzinger to do so. But, in fact, he didn’t. Rather, to my genuine edification, he chose a chapter that speaks of fervent mutual love, anticipating one another in honor, patiently enduring one another’s infirmities, mutual obedience, doing what benefits another rather than oneself. Plus, Chapter 72 tends to be every Benedictine monastic’s favorite chapter of the Rule.

Could this be a foretaste of those “Benedictine values” he intends to practice as the hallmarks of his ministry? And in the homily at his inaugural Eucharist yesterday (which he wrote personally), he made a point to say, “My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by Him, so that He himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history.” How Benedictine can you get? “To listen . . . to the word and the will of the Lord . . .” [emphasis added].

Then, this evening, the pope went to pray at the tomb of the Apostle Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls with the Benedictine community there. In that place, he said (pardon, again, the rough translation),

It is dear to me to recall here the motto that St. Benedict put in his Rule, exhorting his monks “to prefer absolutely nothing to the love of Christ” (ch. 4). In effect, the vocation on the road to Damascus led Paul precisely to that: to make of Christ the center of his life, leaving everything for the sublimity of the knowledge of Christ and of his mystery of love, and committing himself thereafter to proclaim Christ to all, in particular to the pagans, “to the glory of his name” (Rom 1:5).

To me, all of this bodes very well indeed for the future ministry of Benedict XVI in the Church. I thought you’d like to hear about it, too.

The Oblate
A Newsletter for Oblates
Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321-2015
Vol. 49, Nr. 2a (April – June 2005)

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Topics: Francisco Schulte, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope John Paul II

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