A living testament to the new Blessed
Diary of a City Priest, by Pastor Iuventus, available from Amazon Leaving behind London en fête with the royal wedding, I arrived in Rome very late on Friday night with the Quo Vadis youth group for the beatification of Pope John Paul II. The seemingly deserted and tranquil city was scarcely an indication of what was to come.
On Saturday night there was a vigil of prayer in the Circus Maximus. This candlelit vigil al fresco reminded me of World Youth Days. There is something so atmospheric about crowds of people gathering with lights. As the night drew in thousands and thousands of flames glowed in that space shaped by cruel sports and roaring crowds and it looked like a sea of peace.
On a central stage and relayed to huge screens there were testimonies from Cardinal Dziwisz, who was Blessed John Paul’s secretary, and most touchingly from Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, the French religious who could scarcely contain her emotion as she spoke of the wonder of her cure of Parkinson’s disease at John Paul’s intercession being redoubled by being able to testify at his beatification in this way. As the evening wore on more and more pilgrims, especially young Poles, were arriving in the Circus Maximus with rucksacks and sleeping mats and bags. Many had walked from Poland.
Less intrepid, we rose before dawn on Sunday, left the hotel at 6.30am and took a bus to the Piazza Venezia, then walked to the Vatican. The streets were still strangely quiet, lulling us into a very false sense of security. Not until we reached the Tiber did the overwhelming scale of the numbers became apparent. The crowds were backed up all along both sides of the river and the bridges near the Vatican were full of people and closed. The police said that St Peter’s Square and the Via della Conciliazione had been full since 5am. Many of those people we had seen at the vigil had simply gone from there to camp overnight so as to have a place for the morning. One of the consequences of this was that with their makeshift camps they took up far more room than walking pilgrims, so that people arriving very early were told the square was already full. As the campers woke, surfaced and packed up camp more space was available. With great determination the young people in our group plunged into the most enormous sea of people and managed to find themselves a spot on the Conciliazione. The Mass was very moving and amazingly reverent, considering it was attended by a million worshippers. There really were times of silent prayer in this vast crowd. Amid the joy of hearing Pope John Paul II beatified what was also profoundly striking was the serenity and humility of his successor, Pope Benedict.
A late lunch, a good siesta, Mass, Vespers and supper having soothed somewhat the bruising effect of the crowds earlier, we walked from the Colosseum up to the Piazza Navona for an ice cream, and my young pilgrims decided they wanted to venerate the body of Blessed John Paul which was lying in its coffin before the papal altar in St Peter’s. So we joined another huge throng of pilgrims, and after queueing for long enough to say all the mysteries of the rosary and start the Divine Mercy chaplet, we finally were admitted to the basilica at about one in the morning. Here, Anglo-Saxon sensibilities were assaulted by what appeared to be desire for sensation rather than spirituality on the part of some of the crowd. One could hardly get near the spot for the queues of people trying to get their photographs taken with the coffin in the background, This provoked an equal and opposite determination on the part of the Vatican officials – none of whom has ever yet won an Employee of the Week award for his warmth and welcome skills – that no one was going to block the flow by praying anywhere nearby and it was hard to pray with the constant blinding of flashes and cries of “Keep moving! Move back!” Needless to say, despite all such chaos and the scale of the crowds, the whole experience was far more than the sum of its parts. In particular, it felt tremendously privileged to celebrate the beatification of John Paul in the company of young people, in this group born out of the World Youth Day pilgrimages – not just because they are gifted in so many individual ways, but because they really repre sent everything that Blessed John Paul hoped for and worked for in his mission to the young. He will surely bless them so much from heaven for their love of truth, their witness to faith, their goodness and generosity, their love of the Church and their reverence for the sacraments, and will help them in their struggles and their noble ambition to find their vocation. They are a living testament to Blessed John Paul’s pontificate.
Arriving home on Monday I read again his very moving words to at World Youth Day in 2000, and I know now they have begun to take root in Church of the third millennium: “It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others would try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives.”