The John Paul II vigil that transported pilgrims to heaven

About 200,000 people attended the vigil (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Catholic World Report has an article in its June edition about the beatification of Pope John Paul II. For the Saturday evening vigil in preparation for the beatification ceremony the next day, over 200,000 people listened to music, testimony and prayer honouring the late pope. The report comments that among the testimonies, “Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the former director of the Vatican press office, remarked that in beatifying John Paul II the Church would not be making him a saint but acknowledging his sanctity since ‘one is a saint in life or never will be.’ The long-time papal spokesman said he had an indelible memory of the late pope’s respect for the transcendent character of the person… and this respect is something that, once experienced alongside someone like him, one can never forget.”

How I wish I could have been present at the beatification! As it happens, I was offered the opportunity: a friend had to pull out at the last minute and offered me both a flight and a place to stay in Rome for five days. Alas; I had commitments that I couldn’t ignore – so I passed on the offer to a chum who had entered the Church the week before, at the Easter vigil. He was free to go, jumped at the chance and sent me this report from Rome, his first visit to the eternal city:

“Yesterday I got to the B&B and unpacked my things. I had brought with me a book on the Rosary; I want to learn to pray it properly. It had been marked on a page where the only words were, ‘Do this in memory of Me.’ I took it as a sign that I should go to Mass first. After all, I am here for Him. So I went to the first church I found – a little baroque building, packed with Sisters who were all singing beautifully. It was their Divine Office I think, not Mass. I closed my eyes to pray and when I re-opened them they had all gone – leaving me a postcard with a picture of another church. This turned out to be Santi Martiri Marcellino e Pietro, just down the road. Mass was about to start, with only me present and perhaps a dozen elderly Italians. One of them walked four rows to offer me the sign of peace.”

Of the vigil itself, he writes:

“It was intoxicating for me. All the angels and saints were there. Newman was there. Light shone from the face of Our Lady. I was in heaven, not on earth, united to Him and His unending love; His ‘kindly light’ leading me on to whatever he has in store for me here on earth. I have nothing to worry about, if only I stay faithful to Him and not to my own self-will. How wonderful it all is!

“Later I prayed to Blessed John Paul lying in his coffin. And I prayed the Rosary, with thousands and thousands of other people in St Peter’s Square. Heady stuff!”

I re-read my chum’s email after watching a Rome Reports clip today of Pope Benedict visiting a new exhibition about his predecessor. The clip showed many moving reminders of the late pope’s life, including his snowshoes, bicycle (he never learnt to drive a car) canoe and clogs used when he was working at the Solvay chemical factory during the war. There was also a very ordinary black felt hat; for some reason I found this the most poignant feature.

As I write, I have beside me the new biography of Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, written by Finola Kennedy and published by Continuum. As with Navarro-Valls’s observation about the late pope, it seems that Duff treated everyone he met with the same transcendental respect. He saw Christ in everyone – even in the troublesome priests and bishops who sometimes put obstacles in the way of his apostolate. He was definitely a saint in his lifetime; when he died in 1980 John Paul II sent a telegram saying that Duff had made countless lay Catholics aware of their indispensable role in evangelisation.

My newly Catholic friend is just beginning to learn all this. He is in his early 30s and has spent a third of his life behind bars. All that is now behind him. Conversion has literally brought him to new life. Still, like the rest of us sinners he needs prayers.