ROME — The first anniversary of the death of John Paul II seems to have come too soon for many people in Rome, partly because the sheer mass of the event left such a deep, and still fresh, mark on this city and its people.
Both physically and psychologically, Rome embraces the Vatican like a big blanket, and treats it with a proprietary affection mixed with the deep respect for an elderly family member that is sometimes difficult, but always entitled to special status.
John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, though he was warmly welcomed, has yet to make himself completely at home in his white robes. That may explain why to the citizens of the Eternal City, and millions more around the world, the first image that comes to mind with the term “Il Papa,” is still that of Karol Wojtyla, of Krakow, Poland.
Death silenced crowd of thousands
At 9:37 p.m. on the evening of April 2, 2005, (a Saturday) Pope John Paul died in his apartment on the top floor of the Apostolic Palace. The announcement in Saint Peter’s Square a few minutes later hushed the large crowd that had been praying the rosary for him.
The square was unusually dark, and the quiet that would follow is described by many as being “other-worldly.” It’s not often that a hundred thousand people stand together in perfect silence.
The days that followed that night would blend together as the biggest crowd ever assembled in the history of Rome.
Shoulder to shoulder, more than a million people would stand in line, around the clock, for a glimpse of John Paul’s body lying in state. They stood through the night, asleep on their feet, to reach his side at Bernini’s Baldacchino, the solid bronze canopy that covers the main altar of Saint Peter’s basilica.
Statesmen and VIPs were brought in through a side door for a privileged peek, but that was the only concession to status. The line of common people kept flowing by, it wasn’t stopped for the big-wigs, and that’s exactly how the Polish pope would have wanted it. Even in death he kept his special bond with the common people.
“He was a real human being that people could identify with,” said NBC consultant and theology professor Father Thomas Williams of the Legionnaires of Christ, remembering John Paul’s personal touch and incredible appeal.
“He was very warm, he was ‘with you,’ he wanted to be with people, and I think people miss that communication, they miss that heart that was reaching out to all of humanity as if to embrace all of humanity,” Williams said.
Many of the regular folks from all walks of life who waited all those hours for that last look clearly felt that pull of humanity that John Paul represented, and many were already calling him a saint.
There were signs held up at the funeral mass presided by then Cardinal Ratzinger that said “Santo Subito!” Italian for “Saint right away!”
Other signs read “MAGNUS,” Latin for “great.” And indeed the breadth, depth and impact of such a massive papacy and visibly holy life, will probably see this man go down in history as “Saint John Paul the Great.”
For an institution that took several centuries to forgive Galileo for pointing out that our world wasn’t the center of the universe, the Vatican is moving at the speed of light in the “cause” for sainthood of John Paul II.
On May 13th last year, the anniversary date of when John Paul was shot by a Turkish gunman in 1981, Benedict set the sainthood process in motion by suspending the five-year waiting period mandated by the church between the death of a person and the opening of the “cause.”
That rule was established precisely to prevent “sainthood by acclamation” which had been common in the Middle Ages. The church believes that the flood of emotion that swept crowds at the death of someone they considered holy led to many “emotional” canonizations of people who, on closer scrutiny, weren’t really all that holy to begin with.
Proving that even at the Vatican the rules can be broken, (if it’s the pope that’s breaking them), Benedict agreed that in this case the crowd was right, and the voice of the people was heard.
On the fast track
There are two main steps to sainthood. The first is called beatification. It requires death by martyrdom, or an unexplained phenomenon attributed to God, in response to prayers to a specific dead person, asking them to ask God to intervene on earth.
The church calls these miracles, and it’s important to note that it’s not the saint who performs the miracle, but God, because only God has the omnipotence to do so. The saint is merely “interceding” on behalf of the person, (who is praying or being prayed for,) to ask for a miracle.
Most of the church-accepted miracles tend to be inexplicable medical cures, because they are the most verifiable with scientific criteria. There are other kinds, such as “miraculous” rescues from natural disasters, but those are much harder to prove with empirical methods, so the church can’t do much about them.
Thousands of testimonials from people claiming to have been cured after praying to John Paul have been pouring in to the headquarters of the Polish “promoter of the cause” for sainthood. Many of these may be what the church concedes are “special graces,” but not miracles.
Perhaps a sign of ‘God’s creativity’
There is one case that is being treated as the “big one.” It regards a young French nun who suffered from a serious and precocious form of Parkinson’s disease. She states that together with her fellow nuns in France, she prayed to John Paul for nine days. At the end of the nine days she was completely cured of all symptoms.
Philip Pullella, Chief Vatican Correspondent for Reuters wire service, says that those involved in the case are calling this a sign of “God’s creativity.”
“If it is proven to be a miracle and we are told so far that there is no other explanation for it, then it’s truly amazing that it would be a miracle of this sort,” Pullella said. “Because it wasn’t someone who is inexplicably cured of cancer, or something else, but precisely the disease that we saw racked John Paul for the last decade of his life. “
This “event,” as the Vatican calls it while it is still under scrutiny, could lead to John Paul’s beatification as early as next year if the medical panel of the department of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints certifies that was indeed, a miracle.
Even doubters might be given pause by the first miracle being a cure of the disease that the pope publicly suffered from, which ironically the Vatican would never officially acknowledge.
If this event brings about beatification he will become Blessed John Paul II. To become Saint John Paul will require another miracle, and there are thousands of “blessed” on the shelves of the Vatican’s “saints department,” waiting for a second miracle that never comes.
‘Vox populi’ ringing loud and clear
But somehow that doesn’t feel like it will be the case for the John Paul, judging by the multitude of testimonials posted on the official web site dedicated to his sainthood.
The "vox populi," voice of the people, is ringing loud and clear in the digital town square that now joins the world on the internet.
Everything about John Paul and his pontificate was super-sized, as he broke every previous papal record with his efforts in life. It’s only natural then that he should continue to go to great lengths, even in death.
Stephen Weeke is NBC News' Rome Bureau Chief. Click here to see a link to the digital town square promoting the cause for the beatification Pope John. http://www.vicariatusurbis.org/Beatificazione/HomePageen.asp