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Archive: An eyewitness account of St John Paul II’s last days

Pilgrims begin to fill St. Peter's Square on the day of St John Paul II's funeral (AP)

It was an act of faith. On Wednesday March 30, as we took a group of 20 girls to St Peter’s Square, we didn’t know whether we would see the Holy Father. It seemed unlikely. Just before we left with the Rose Round group for Girls for a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi sponsored by the Chesterton Institute, we had seen the Urbi et Orbi broadcast. We had seen the Pope attempt to give the final blessing in his own voice. We had seen him fail. This great man, once an athlete, strong and tireless, gradually stripped of every natural gift, was now stripped of his last attribute. Not knowing then if he would appear again, we trooped off, the banner of St Thérèse fluttering before us, and sang Panis Angelicus at 10.50 am in St Peter’s Square to honour the Year of the Eucharist the Holy Father had instituted.

A few minutes later, the curtains opened, and to our amazement, he was there, in the window. A cardinal read out a brief message from the Pope, mentioning especially the young people who were in the square. He finished with the blessing. The Holy Father raised his hand and made the sign of the cross. We heard him say, in that shadow of a voice which was all he had left: Amen. Then everyone cheered, clapped. The girls jumped up and down, waved their hands, their little banner. “Giovanni Paolo, Giovanni Paolo,” chanted the young people from Milan, over and over again. It was the roar of support the crowd gives an athlete, running to the finish line in a long-distance race. And he, the figure in white in his wheelchair, continued to move his right hand in that blessing, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, over and over again. Another motion from the voice that had all but disappeared, a final attempt to speak, and then it was over. He was wheeled away.

On Friday morning we visited Cardinal Stafford, whom we had got to know when he was prefect of the Council for the Laity. He talked to the girls about the communion that was to be experienced on a pilgrimage, a communion made possible only by the fact that we received the Body of Christ together. You too should be a eucharist, he said. You too should be a thanksgiving. You who receive Christ in the Eucharist, should be bearers of Him to one another and to the world. He told us that the Holy Father was now gravely ill, and led us in prayer for him. We decided that the most important thing now was to focus on the Holy Father, to offer him what solidarity we could. We jettisoned the visit to the catacombs and returned to St Peter’s.

When we got there we were shocked to see so few people. We had imagined the piazza would be full. Spontaneously we knelt down and prayed the rosary. The police asked us to get up. We took one last look at that window. We said goodbye. In Assisi on Saturday we decided to have a Holy Hour to pray for the Holy Father. At 9pm the children crowded into the chapel of the guesthouse. After the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, the queue for the confessional multiplied. The atmosphere of prayer was palpable. Tears flowed. Wounds were exposed, healing grace to be bestowed. The nets were full. Towards the end I left the chapel with some girls who needed attention. We were in their dormitory when the bells began to chime. It was 10pm. At exactly that moment our chaplain had lifted the monstrance to give benediction down below. The children upstairs began to weep anew. It feels all wrong, said one girl. Who is looking after the Church now? I reminded them of the fatherly kindness and attention that the cardinal had shown them the previous day.

There are many fathers like that among the cardinals, I said. Many fathers like that among the priests. Do not be afraid. They all descended to the chapel again. We said the prayers for the dead. We sang Ubi Caritas, slowly, seven times. Like St Francis, we commended ourselves to the one Father who gave us all fathers, who gave us his only Son to be our viaticum. And that Son was there with us, on the road to Emmaus, as we moved forward into the Feast of Divine Mercy, the feast which the Father had now chosen to associate irrevocably with his beloved servant Karol Wojtyla. Flights of angels sing you to your rest.

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