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How we reported the death of St John Paul II

Pall bearers carry the body of Pope John Paul II through a packed St Peter's Square (CNS)

Pope John Paul II, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, died in his Vatican apartments at 9.37pm on April 2 after a long struggle with illness. The causes of death were septic shock and irreversible heart failure, according to the death certificate issued by the Vatican. The Holy Father is reported to have died looking towards the window as he prayed, raising his right hand shortly before his last breath in a gesture of blessing, as if he had become aware of the crowd of faithful present in St Peter’s Square.

Then the Pope made a huge effort, pronounced the word “Amen”, and his life ended. In St Peter’s Square, flickering candles illuminated sombre faces. Individuals still strolled aimlessly, looking pensive. Most of the crowd was silent, looking up at the papal apartments, perhaps hoping against hope that the Holy Father would surprise everyone and appear once again at his usual window. But when a third light went on in the papal apartments overlooking the piazza, some onlookers already knew it was a sign that the end had come.

Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, under-secretary of state for the Vatican, made the public announcement at 9.54pm, immediately after the crowd had finished praying the rosary. “Dearest brothers and sisters, at 9.37 the Holy Father returned to the house of the Father. We all feel like orphans this evening,” he said. Tens of thousands of faithful had streamed to St Peter’s Square as the Pope lay dying, some staying all night in quiet and moving vigils, aware that there was little hope for his recovery. Shortly before the Pontiff’s death, Cardinal Edmund Szoka led a candlelit prayer service in the square. “Like children, we draw close around our beloved Holy Father, who taught us how to follow Jesus and how to love and serve the Church and the people,” Cardinal Szoka said.

“This is the gift we present to him as he prepares to take his last journey. May the Madonna present him to her Son and obtain for him, through her intercession, the reward promised to the faithful servants of the Gospel.” As the inevitable news was announced, a round of applause – the traditional Italian response – rolled around St Peter’s Square. Then the crowd spontaneously began to sing the Salve Regina . Minutes later, a single bell began its mournful toll as the Swiss Guard swung shut the bronze gates of St Peter’s.

They are closed only when a pope dies and will not be re-opened until white smoke over the Vatican announces the election of a new pontiff. There were 14 people present at the deathbed of John Paul II, including his personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, three nuns – Handmaidens of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – who assisted in the Holy Father’s apartment, and the Pope’s personal physician, Dr Renato Buzzonetti, with the two doctors and the two nurses on call. A Vatican source said: “The Pope died holding the hand of his faithful secretary of 40 years, Archbishop Dziwisz. “The only sound to break the silence in his room was the sound of the nuns who had gathered crying.”

Described as “serene and lucid” to the end, John Paul managed to speak several times before finally losing consciousness. When he was told about the thousands of young people singing and calling his name outside his window in St Peter’s Square he said: “All my life I have been searching for you. Now you have found me. And I thank you.”

Our front cover in April 2005
Our front cover in April 2005

As the end approached, the Pope urged the faithful not to cry for him in a message dictated on his deathbed. “I am happy and you should be happy too,” he said. “Do not weep. Let us pray together with joy.” Immediately after the death, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, arrived at the apartments, as did the Camerlengo, or chamberlain, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo. Following the prescribed ritual, the chamberlain called the Pope by his baptismal name, Karol, three times to make certain of his death.

Then the Pescatorio – the papal ring bearing the image of St Peter – was removed from his hand to be destroyed. The ring is unique to each pope. On Sunday, John Paul’s body, dressed in crimson robes and a white mitre, was transferred to the Sala Clementina in the Apostolic Palace. Two Swiss Guards flanked him as the cardinals and Vatican hierarchy came to pay their respects. John Paul II’s closest aides attended the first of the funeral rites of nine days of mourning for the Pope on Sunday morning, presided over by the chamberlain, Cardinal Somalo. The rite began with prayers and psalms pronounced by Cardinal Somalo, who lit the paschal candle that stood next to the catafalque on which the Pope’s body lay, and then blessed the body three times and sprinkled holy water.

At a Requiem Mass in St Peter’s Square, Archbishop Sandri surprised the crowd when he read out the Pope’s final message. “It is love which converts hearts and gives peace,” the Pope had said. “To all humanity, which today seems so lost and dominated by the power of evil, selfishness and fear, our resurrected Lord gives us his love which forgives, reconciles and reopens the soul to hope.” On Monday afternoon thousands of mourners crowded into St Peter’s Square to watch as the Pope’s body was transferred in solemn procession to St Peter’s Basilica, where some four million pilgrims were expected to pay their respects.

Before the procession, Cardinal Somalo said prayers and blessed the Pope’s body with holy water. Then 12 “Papal Gentlemen”, Vatican officials acting as pallbearers, lifted the body on a crimson stretcher. Swiss Guards carrying halberds marched alongside. The cardinals and priests formed a procession, singing Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” They processed down the broad Noble Stairway, through several frescoed rooms on the first floor of the Apostolic Palace, down the Royal Stairway and through the Bronze Doors into the centre of St Peter’s Square, where thousands of people were waiting. Pope John Paul’s body was carried into the basilica accompanied by the chanting of the litany of saints. Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who shot and seriously wounded John Paul in 1981, has begged to attend. “I must be there. I must attend the funeral. If I can’t go then someone from my family should go,” he said.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald (8/4/05)