By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published April 7, 2005
It was supposed to be a celebration, a Mass to officially welcome Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to the Cathedral of Christ the King. But a Mass held just a few hours after news was received of Pope John Paul II’s death April 2 quickly turned a celebratory occasion into a somber one.
Black fabric draped the doors of the Cathedral, which were also adorned with black wreaths, a sign of mourning over the death of the beloved shepherd of the church. A photo of the late pontiff rested on an easel draped in black cloth in front of the side altar of the Cathedral and drew many parishioners to pray in front of the image, which was surrounded by candles. Archbishop Gregory, arriving early for the Mass, paused for a few minutes, kneeling on the cool marble floor of the Cathedral, and prayed in front of the framed portrait of the pope. A song performed before the Mass by the Cathedral’s Contemporary Ensemble brought many to tears as it described God’s promise of eternal life for those who serve Him and die with Him.
“We come together this evening in a spirit of sorrow and grief, but we are also a people of hope and faith,” Archbishop Gregory said in his opening prayer. “We pray that God, who chose Pope John Paul II to be the bishop of Rome, will comfort all of us in our time of sorrow, for our faith teaches us that death is not the end, but the beginning of life.”
Much of the bilingual Mass continued as planned, with the many music ministries of the Cathedral showcasing their varied styles during the liturgy. But the sorrow over the pope’s death hung heavy in the air and was the focus of the archbishop’s homily.
“Throughout this very week during which the Church celebrates the focal point of our Faith, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all have been strangely focused upon the very human experience of dying,” he said, mentioning the death of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who died March 31 after her feeding tube was disconnected at the insistence of her husband. “In this same Easter week, hundreds of millions of people have watched the course of the dying of a pope. Pope John Paul II never concealed his illnesses. I doubt that he could have even if he had wanted. Fortunately, he opened his life to the eyes of the world. And in so doing, he gave a prominent face to human suffering and illness.”
Many people are uncomfortable with such outward signs of suffering, of the loss of youth and agility, often because they fear arriving at those inevitable places in their own lives. But Pope John Paul II courageously taught the world a lesson about living and dying, the archbishop said.
“The message that the Holy Father has preached with his own body is that human dignity, human value, is never dependent upon outward appearances,” he said. “The young and the vitality of youthfulness are wonderful, and no one has said that more frequently, straightforwardly, or eloquently than did Pope John Paul II. Yet, the sick and the infirm, the weak, and the helpless are also precious in the eyes of God with a value that they never lose, but only increase when they accept God’s designs for them in Faith.”
St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the Gospel. When necessary, use words,” the archbishop told the congregation.
“Certainly, Pope John Paul II preached one of his most compelling sermons as he faced his own death,” Archbishop Gregory said.
Though the week had brought an extraordinary commingling of life and death, the archbishop said, the two are often “strangely linked.”
“As we only minutes ago received the news of the Holy Father’s passing from this life to Eternal Life, let us thank God for the gift that he was for the Church and indeed for the entire world. Let us not fail to heed this most eloquent final witness that he offered to us,” Archbishop Gregory said, pointing out the significance of Sunday’s feast. “This Divine Mercy Sunday, he lived out the motto of St. Faustina’s mystic vision—she is one of the scores of saints that he himself canonized—‘Jesus, I trust you!’ What more could he have said—what more could any of us say?”
The prayers of the community of faith that followed the archbishop’s homily seemed to reverberate in the church, perhaps inspired by the Holy Father who had been so strong in his belief in the great power of prayer. The eucharistic prayer that had for over 26 years mentioned Pope John Paul II was replaced with a special prayer for the repose of the soul of Karol Wojtyla.
Some parishioners attended the 5:30 p.m. vigil Mass as they regularly do, but this particular Mass took on a special meaning. Jonie LaBouff, who is on staff at the Cathedral, and her husband, Joe, said that even though they regularly attend the Saturday Mass, it was even more important to be there to celebrate the memory of the Holy Father.
“I feel really privileged to be a part of this community,” Jonie LaBouff said. “And to have the archbishop with us during this incredible time—words fail me.”
Joe LaBouff fought back emotion when speaking of the late pontiff.
“It was very special to be here, to participate in this Mass,” he said. “This is a tremendous loss, and it will be hard to replace (Pope John Paul II).”
Other CTK parishioners, like Jackie Oddo, usually attend a different Sunday Mass but wanted to be with their fellow parishioners to mourn the pope’s death.
“I wanted to be with my faith community and to share my grief with other Catholics. I just love the Holy Father, and I feel like I’ve lost a daddy,” she said. “I’m really impressed with the media coverage. It shows that the Holy Father transcended all faiths and all ages. He was a living saint and a role model for all of us.”
But there is a special relationship that Catholics have with their shepherd, Oddo said.
“I always think of his shoulders and what he bore for us. The world looked at him and saw a man that couldn’t hold his head up, but as a Catholic Christian, I saw a man who bore the weight of suffering for us all.”