|April 8, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla): How Best Do You Remember Him?
As dawn broke over the island of Puerto Rico today, a Roman Catholic leader of transcending importance was laid to rest in St. Peters Basilica, the epicenter of Vatican City and the liturgical focal point for Catholic worshipers everywhere. After the Mass of Christian Burial in windy St. Peters Square, attended by most of the Churchs Cardinals and Bishops, the mortal remains of Pope John Paul II, resting in a simple cypress-wood coffin, were lowered into a crypt formerly occupied by a predecessor, Pope John XXIII.
As prelates, world leaders and distinguished guests arrived at Vatican City to attend the funeral, solemn memorial gatherings were being held around the globe, in solidarity with a pontiff that is already being referred to as "The Worlds Pope." This characterization recognizes not only his prodigious papal travel schedule, reaching 129 nations in 26&1/2 years, but also for the influence that his witness had on geopolitical events, most importantly the decline and fall of communism in Poland, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
His funeral in the Square reflected the international focus of his papacy and was reminiscent of the exuberance that greeted him throughout it. The crowd of some 300,000 festooned the space with banners and the flags of many countries. The liturgy, primarily conducted in Latin, was sprinkled with the worlds languages, including Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Portuguese, French, German and Polish. In a nod to the Orthodox Church, Patriarchs, robed in their distinctive vestments, said prayers in Greek at the bier of John Paul II who, in life, reached out to that branch of Christendom, always pleading for reconciliation and unity. Throughout the three-hour service, the crowd applauded vigorously and at times shouted out in unison, "John Paul, The Great."
Among those attending the funeral from Puerto Rico were Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez, and Archbishop Roberto González Nieves. Earlier, the two prelates reminded reporters of the Popes 1984 visit to Puerto Rico. The archbishop recalled how the John Paul II kissed the ground upon arrival on the island, a practice followed by "The Pilgrim Pope" on all of his overseas visits. Cardinal Aponte Martínez, because he is over eighty years of age, is not eligible to attend the conclave to elect a new pope, scheduled to begin on April 18th.
From Washington, Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño issued a statement calling John Paul II "A beacon of light to millions around the world. He served as an example to many inside and outside of the Catholic faith as a champion of human rights, peace and Christian values. He dedicated his life to the disadvantaged and inspired us through example."
Joining other heads of state at the funeral, U.S. President George W. Bush was accompanied to Rome by former Presidents William Jefferson Clinton and his father, George H.W. Bush. Upon hearing of the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2nd, the President and First Lady delivered a statement on behalf of the American people in which they remembered the late pontiff as "an inspiration to millions of Americans and to so many more throughout the world. We will always remember the humble, wise and fearless priest who became one of history's great moral leaders."
Since his death on April 2nd, unprecedented numbers of visitors to Rome have given witness of their love for this Pope with their feet. Crowd estimates by Italian authorities place the number of arriving pilgrims at four million, making his funeral the most heavily attended in recorded world history. Most had to content themselves with watching the requiem mass on large television screens scattered throughout Rome. During long waits, many were heard speaking of the late Popes charisma, his deep spirituality, his grasp of languages and his resolute adherence to the tenants and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.
Since the late Popes bier was placed on public view in the Basilica on Monday, lines of mourners, fifteen or more abreast at times, snaked for miles in an unbroken line through Romes streets and alleys, at last to arrive at the Vaticans great square and mount the ceremonial stairs leading to the main doors of St. Peters. For some, the slow march to catch a glimpse of their revered spiritual leader took twenty-four hours. As grueling as was the trek to arrive at the catafalque, few complained when queried by reporters. One woman told a British correspondent, "No walk is too long to bid farewell to this giant of Churchs history."
Americans in Rome for the funeral, as well as those watching at home, could recall Pope John Paul IIs five papal visits to the United States, beginning in the fall of 1979 when the jet of a vigorous Pope first touched down at Bostons Logan Airport, and ending in January of 1999 when he departed St. Louis after a 30-hour stop-over, by then an ill and hobbled man, barely able to make himself understood. During his long papacy, John Paul II met with five U.S. presidents.
President Jimmy Carters Chief of Protocol at the time of the first papal visit, Ambassador Abelardo Valdez, became the first American to officially welcome the then new Pope to the United States. "I remember His Holiness as a very gracious and charismatic person in an understated way
these qualities conveyed to me an aura of dignity and power." The Ambassador further recalled that later on, when the Pope arrived in Washington, he became the first pontiff to be accorded a state visit by an American President and that the meeting between John Paul II and President Carter was immediately cordial and spontaneous. "They really connected as kindred spirits."
Although he was warmly, and often wildly, welcomed by crowds in the United States, his moral emphasis was controversial in many sectors of the American church and society. He locked ethical horns with many U.S. leaders including Presidents -- on his opposition to abortion, warfare and the death penalty. He was not shy in pointing out the nations rampant consumerism and secular culture. He called for a reduction in Americas profligate use of the worlds natural resources and, on one occasion, likened the United States to the rich man of the gospels who ignored the poor and starving Lazarus, pleading at his door for the crumbs left at his table. Those who consulted the New Testament after the remark must have become unsettled by the rich mans final judgment by God.
Non-Christian witnesses to the funeral could recall Pope John Pauls visits to Israel and to Muslim countries, where he sought rapprochement among Christians, Jews and Muslims. On a visit to Tunisia he became the first pope to worship at a Mosque. The Vatican and Israel established full diplomatic ties in 1994 after centuries of often hostile Catholic-Jewish relations.
In 1979, at Auschwitz, the Pope greeted Holocaust survivors and prayed for the millions that died in Nazi gas chambers. The next year, in Jerusalem, he stated, "As Bishop of Rome and Successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church ... is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and at any place." In 1986, he visited Romes principle Synagogue, the first Pope to do so since the days of the early church, joining in the Hebrew prayers led by the citys Chief Rabbi, Elio Toaff.
In a last will read yesterday in Rome, Pope John Paul II named Rabbi Toaff as one of his two named "heirs," although the Pontiff left no personal possessions. On Wednesday Rabbi Toaff, now retired, was seen in St. Peters standing in silence before the bier of the deceased Pope, a man that he called his friend. After several minutes, he raised his hand in blessing and departed the Basilica.
Pilgrims in Rome from his native Poland remembered the Pope as Karol Wojtyla, the priest, Bishop and Cardinal among them until he assumed the papacy in 1978. He is universally loved in Poland for the pride he gave them on seeing one of their own ascend to the Throne of St. Peter, the first non-Italian selection in half a millennium. Perhaps he is even more revered in Poland for his role among them as a friend, pastor and teacher, one who endured with them a fierce Nazi occupation in the 1930s and 40s, the crushing communist régime of the 1950s, 60s and 70s and who, after he became Pope, returned whenever he could to imbue them with confidence and hope for the future.
Most Poles wished that the remains of their revered countryman could be returned to his native soil for burial. Pope John Paul II expressed willingness for that to occur but left the final decision to the College of Cardinals, who apparently decided that he belonged more to Rome and the universal church than to his motherland. Karol Wojtylas final trip, therefore, was to be the short journey from the square that he saw daily from his apartment window overlooking it, to a crypt in St. Peters Basilica where his remains joined those of the Apostle St. Peter and countless other men, who, like him, have put on the "Shoes of the Fisherman."
How will you most remember the 265th Pope, Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II?