By KRISTI JEFFRIES, Commentary | Published April 21, 2005
Where were you when you heard that Pope John Paul II had died?
I’m sure that moment will be vividly impressed in all of our minds and hearts through the years. For me, walking into a high school friend’s wedding just after getting the phone call of the news was one of the biggest swings of emotion I’ve ever encountered.
From the moment I learned of his death every part of me wanted to be in Rome.
Two and a half days later, after a lot of prayer and an hour of searching on-line, miraculously I found a plane ticket at the regular price leaving in three days and arriving in Rome Friday morning, April 8, hours before the papal funeral was to start. I called my Mom to express apprehension about a morning arrival, but after some more prayer I clicked the buttons to confirm my flight.
I knew that if even one delay occurred, or one flight time changed, I could arrive in Rome after the very event I was going for. Yet the next day, after I received a traveler’s blessing from my pastor, Father John Kieran, and the community of St. Pius X Church in Conyers, I knew that this trip was not of my own making and that I was going for every person I knew who wanted to be there but couldn’t be.
I set out on Thursday afternoon, April 7, ready to fly through the night. An early arrival at the airport avoided a near mishap due to a cancelled flight and I was once again reminded that I was not steering this trip. The news reports said that Rome had closed because of the massive numbers of pilgrims, that no more pilgrims could be received into the city, and that air space was going to be shut down for security concerns.
However, at 7:20 a.m. Rome time my flight touched down and with only a backpack I whisked through customs and asked a taxi driver to take me to “Vaticano.” He looked at me as though I was crazy and then said, “Close to Vaticano.” In half an hour he had me within seven blocks of Vatican City and I walked the rest of the way.
Within one block there were people everywhere. I simply began praying for the Holy Spirit to lead my every step and started to turn up and down streets. By 8:30 a.m. I had made it to the edge of the street leading straight up to St. Peter’s Square. By 9:30 a.m. I was standing near the middle of St. Peter’s Square. I will never be able to explain or understand how that transpired, but I believe it was completely due to the power of prayer from the community of St. Pius X, my friends and family.
Once in the square I moved as close as I could with incredible ease. I was the only American in my immediate area and could hear at least five different languages around me. All of our different cultures and languages melted away the moment the Mass began and I was amazed by the silence and reverence.
During the homily, applause swept over us like a wave as Cardinal Ratzinger spoke so beautifully of the Holy Father. At the time I didn’t have a translation of what was said, but from the applause and expressions I felt I understood. The only other way I can think to describe the Mass was that of a World Youth Day. I had been to Toronto in 2002 and the faces around me seemed so similar not just because of how young everyone was but also because of how much we all shared in our love for the Holy Father.
The Mass seemed to build upon itself like no other I had been to with an incredible stillness that descended upon us all during the eucharistic prayer. I marveled at how four million of us gathered in one place to pray in the same way. I cried as I reflected on this being the Year of the Eucharist. It seemed as though the Holy Father’s words in Mane Nobiscum Domine—“I would like the young people to gather around the Eucharist as the vital source which nourishes their faith and enthusiasm”—was now fulfilled just months after his request.
Throughout the distribution of Holy Communion you could feel the love of Christ as everyone tried to help everyone else get to the barricade in order to receive. With Christ now present inside all of us the wave of emotion seemed to climb still higher as we sang the Litany of the Saints. Standing in the square seeing many of the named saints’ statues before me it was incredible to realize just how united we were in prayer with the Communion of Saints.
As the Mass concluded and the pallbearers came to pick up the coffin of our Holy Father the applause began once again. This time it was different. This time regardless of what language you spoke, or how you had gotten there, we all clapped and cried as they lifted the coffin. Standing there as the pallbearers walked slowly to the entryway of St. Peter’s Basilica the applause only grew louder and louder. As they took one final turn to present the Holy Father to the congregation it felt as though everyone there didn’t want that moment to end. It felt like once they walked through the doors he would really be gone. However, as they entered inside the basilica and the applause continued it was clear that he was very much alive in all of us.
I have never known another pope since John Paul II was named pope just two months after I was born. I’ve seen him three different times and felt as though he saw me each time as well. I also experienced youth ministry as a teen and became a youth minister because of his words, “Do not be afraid.” Though I do feel as though I have lost a father in my life one of my friends reminded me that now we have access to him. Before he died, I couldn’t walk up to him to ask for his prayers; now I can simply turn my heart toward heaven and say, John Paul, pray for us.
It is only through the power of prayer that I became one of the millions of pilgrims in Rome for such an amazing event. And I now know that it will be the power of prayer that continues to sustain the Church that I learned to love through John Paul II’s example. In his livelihood and suffering I believe he taught us all to love the Church as Christ loves the Church. I only hope that we can follow the incredible example he set for us all.
Kristi Jeffries is the youth minister at St. Pius X Church in Conyers.