eyewitness account

A friend of mine who is a priest studying in Rome sent an e-mail about what he experienced at funeral of John Paul II. He’s given me permission to reprint the letter here.

Dear Family and Friends,

Here are my reflections on the Funeral of Our Holy Father.

You have all heard about the crowds in Rome this week, and it was truly amazing. Many people reported waiting 10-15 hours on Wednesday to try and get into to see the Holy Father’s body. And yet those same people said they were so grateful for the opportunity to say goodbye. On Thursday I was able to go in to see the body with Archbishop Flynn and the other priest and seminarians from St. Paul (Fr. Scott Carl, Deacon John Gallas, and Tim Schiebe). We were able to spend about an hour in the Back of the Basilica as people continued to process through the main basilica to see the body. Archbishop got to kneel and pray very close for as long as he wanted. They also brought through the back all the handicapped people in wheel chairs and other sorts of dignitaries. It was such a moment to see the whole Church. So many people coming to pay their respects to Our Holy Father. It really made me so grateful to be a Catholic — to be a member of this household of God.

For the Funeral mass, I was sitting in the middle of the general section reserved for all priests at the front of the Piazza on the left, just down from the main altar (those of you watching on T.V. saw a big section of white — that was us). I was about 100 yards from the Altar and could see the casket during the whole ceremony. Because I arrived in a car with my Archbishop, Harry Flynn, I was saved the trouble of having to fight through the long lines to arrive at the Piazza. The students from the University of St. Thomas Catholic studies house, had camped out all night to get a place in the Piazza. In fact all the streets around St. Peter’s were filled with hundreds of thousands of young people camping out all night to get a good place — it seemed like the last night to keep vigil with Pope John Paul II as they had done many times at World Youth day.

The mood in the crowd was beautiful, both somber, sad, and also at times joyful. When the body came out the crowd errupted in applause. During the homily by Cardinal Ratzinger he was interupted at several times by applause. Especially when he welcomed the young people. The square was filled with flags from many nations, but especially from the Pope’s beloved Poland. The priests in my section seemed to come from almost every country. I heard them speaking around me, Polish, Spanish, French, and English. They were for the most part very somber and at certain points it seemed almost all of us were openly weeping.

As the funeral mass was ready to begin the dignitaries were being seated. Only the Holy Father could bring together so many heads of state who normally don’t get along. I was able to see our own President enter with his wife Laura and behind him Presidents Clinton and Bush (senior) and Condoleeza Rice. The procession began with bringing in Our Holy Father’s body in its simple wood Casket with the Cross and the M for Our Lady standing at the foot of the Cross. Then in processed the large group of Cardinals, which included all the Cardinals, not just the 122 who will be voting. Finally Cardinal Ratzinger who would lead the ceremony because he is the Dean of the College.

The Homily was for me surprisingly personal. (Read it at: http://www.ewtn.com/JohnPaul2/_mourning/news/index9.asp) He focused not on Pope John Paul II’s great achievements: he did not mention that he has written more than all the other Popes combined or traveled more or beatified more. Rather, he focused on John Paul II as a disciple, a Christian who was asked at several times in his life to say “yes” to Jesus. Based on the Gospel which was so beautifully chosen from Our Holy Father’s own life where Jesus said to Peter — Do you love me? (Our Holy Father had preached on this same Gospel at the 25th anniversary of his pontificate 18 months ago — he said he always tried to answer with Peter, “Yes Lord you know that I love you.”) The Cardinal focused especially on Jesus’ last words to Peter: Follow me. The Cardinal went through the Holy Father’s life and spoke of all those times Jesus had said to Him: follow me. Even mentioning how he was on a canoe trip when he was made a bishop. He showed how at every turning point in Our Holy Father’s life the Lord was inviting him more and more to lose himself — to let go of his hopes, desires, dreams in order to follow him — to lose himself so that he might find himself. Until finally at the end of his life the Holy Father had given up himself so much that he was conformed to Christ (as St. Paul said — It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me). Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out how deeply our Holy Father lived his priesthood — so deeply that like the good shepherd he gave himself completely for his sheep.

Then we celebrated the Eucharist and after communion, the funeral ended with the commendation of the Body. This was done in Latin with the traditional: “In Paradisium” (May the Angels lead you into paradise…) and also with a special commendation from the Eastern Rite Catholics sung in Greek. During the different pauses you could here the young people in the crowd chanting as they did at World Youth day in all the various languages (John Paul II we love you!). Then as the Body was lifted up by the Papal Household Chamberlains and begun to be carried back into the Basilica there was simply a sustained applause. The Choir sang, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum, et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo (Luke 1: 46-47)” The Chamberlains stopped and turned the body one last time towards the crowd, lowering the feet and lifting the head. We all wept as we knew we were saying goodbye for the last time. Then the body was turned again feet towards the altar and disappeared into the basilica. It was taken downstairs and immediately entombed. The Bell of St. Peter’s tolled for him. It was as if he passed into the next life at that moment, and now we were left alone.

After making sure the Archbishop got back to his hotel I walked home alone in silence. It is a real time of mourning. It is hard to believe that our Holy Father is gone. It makes one realize just how important he was to you when you feel so profoundly his absence. I can only be grateful thinking of all the ways he impacted me especially as a priest. His love for Our Lady encouraged me to read St. Louis De Montefort and understand true devotion. His love the Eucharist affected the way I treasure daily Mass and daily adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. As Cardinal Ratzinger said he was a priest “fino in fondo” (to the depths of his being), which makes me want to be a priest all the more also giving my life for Christ and his Church. The depths of Our Holy Father’s own self gift to Christ are also seen in his spiritual testament. Where it becomes so clear that he saw his whole life as belonging to God alone, entrusting himself always to Jesus through Our Lady, he made a gift of his life for us and for the Church. Again quoting Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily: “To the Lord’s question, “Karol, do you love me?,” the Archbishop of Krakow answered from the depths of his heart: “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.” The love of Christ was the dominant force in the life of our beloved Holy Father. Anyone who ever saw him pray, who ever heard him preach, knows that.” May we seek to be so profoundly rooted in Christ as he was. To love Christ above all things is the example he left us. So that they can say of us… anyone who ever saw him pray, or heard him preach knows he loves Christ.

Hopefully we have now a week of relative quiet as we await the beginning of the Conclave on the 18th. Having really only known one Pope in my life it is difficult to think yet of another one. But we must pray for the Cardinals that they will follow the Holy Spirit in this difficult job.

Totus Tuus,
Fr. Andrew Cozzens

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