The city is noticably busier today. The additional public transport services are packed and one sees little groups of pilgrims lugging their rucksacks about the place. Having missed the Pope's removal from the Sala Clementina to the Vatican Basilica yesterday afternoon due to inescapable commitments I made a dtermined effort to esape my commitments to attend the lying in state today.
St Peter's is open 21 hours a day - there are 3 hours of cleaning scheduled from 2am to 5am, but I understand that even that brief closure period is being reduced due to the numbers wanting to view the remains and pay their last respects. And so it was that at 9am this morning I joined the queue. I actually vascilated for a minute - the queue was about a mile long (by my estimate) and probably 15 or 20 persons broad for most of its lenght. However, I couldn't not do this, so armed with my breviary, a theology book, a rosary and a packet of what Americans would recognise as 'Fig Newtons' I joined it.
The athmosphere was surprisingly light - the sun was shining and (amazingly for Italy) there was virtually no shoving. People swopped anecdotes about 'Il Papa', sang hymns and watched images of his pontificate on the big screens which lined the route. Helpers were on hand to distribute water and rosary leaflet's with the Pope's postrait were passed arond. Perhaps some of my readers are surprised that there wasn't weeping - however, in many Catholic countries the well-lived life of a man who had reached a ripe old age is appeciated and death is seen as a homecoming. Wakes therefore are not necesaarily always solemn - there is a time to remember with joy the gift that John Paul II was to us all and to humbly but confidently trust in the Resurrection.
The hours passed by and I suppose that given the scale of what was happening the queue moved relatively quickly. By noon I had reached St Peter's Square where the queue narrowed and snaked about a couple of times before entering the Basilica by the centre door. As we neared the church the athmopsphere did get quieter. People began to join in with the prayers which were being broadcast from within the Basilica. Climbing the ramp that leads under the portico all I could see inside the darkened Basilica was the window of the Holy Spirit illuminated by the sun. He was hovering over where I know John Paul's body to be - a pledge that the Holy Spirit is still with the church and is waiting to descend again on our next Pontiff. I prayed some of the office of the dead as I made my way slowly up the aisle. Apart from the prayers and chants of a choir behind the high altar there was virtual silence - people whispered discreetly and infrequently. I lifted up my head and stood on tippy-toes at one point as the queue momentarily stopped and caught my first glimpse of our departed Holy Father. 4 Swiss Guards shoot about him, the six candles on the High Altar were lit, prelates and religious kept vigil either side of him and the body of the man himself lay in insubstanially on its bier. Dressed in red vestments, with pastoral staff by his side he looked thin and insignificant. His face was grey, but nonetheless something of his dignity still clung to him. 'A noble corpse!' they used to say in Ireland. It was John Paul and it wasn't. I sometimes think that until one has seen the corpse of a loved one one doesn't really grasp the idea of the soul as being one's spiritual substantial form. When life departs a body changes - it's very obviously not the person any more. Looking at John Paul's mortal remains I was very aware that the strenght and virility (if I might use that word in a 'respectable' and literal sense) which characterised him even in his times of illness had left him.
We were allowed draw close to the barrier to pray briefly and then we were sensitively asked to make way for those who were behind us. The dignity of the security staff and mourners alike at this point was striking - I kept expecting someone to refuse to move or for a security official to become agitated, but this was too solemn an occasion for that. As we people away, turning back for one last look many lost their composure. The side aisles of the basilca were reserved for those leaving and one could see dozens of people weeping copiously, kneeling on the pavement or curled up in a ball at the base of a pillar. A significant crowd gathered and prayed at the altar under which Pope Pius X is buried, whilst near the exit a small group was praying out of a breviary. There was a basket for messages and tributes at one of the side altars. As I approached the Holy Father I was aware that I was bring the prayers of so many other people with me - family, friends and even the readers of my 'blog who were unable to come to Rome in person. So, having prayed on my behalf and yours at the foot of the Pope's body I took out a piece of paper and wrote the only words I could think of to salute this great man - 'Farewell Holy Father.' Unoriginal, yes... uninspired, yes... but sincere... I think the Pope's great appeal, his sincerity, his rapport with young and old and the admiration he won even from those who disagreed with him profoundly is based on nothing other than the fact that he radiated and mediated a great holiness. And so he was a father to us and we wish him well... We thank him for what he did and we pray that he has passed into the company of the saints to be with the One he served so faithfully.
(Another first-hand account of events in Rome is availible at Dappled Things)