Mourners Remember Pope John Paul II
Stephen Chernin  /  Getty Images
Cardinal Edward Egan walks among parishioners Sunday as he celebrates a Mass in memory of Pope John Paul II at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.
By Bob Sullivan Correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 4/3/2005 8:03:29 PM ET 2005-04-04T00:03:29

The early spring rain was unrelenting, and the whipping wind rendered many umbrellas useless. Still, thousands mourning the death of Pope John Paul II were drawn to St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue Sunday morning hoping to hear words of comfort from Cardinal Edward Egan.

In this city's largest church, just steps away from America's most famous shopping district, Egan stressed John Paul's simple humility.

“He was a giant, but a humble giant,” Egan told the capacity crowd.  The pope was easy to admire when he faced down dictators and flashed the graceful, athletic body of his early papal years. But it was John Paul's continued public presence, even as his frailty began to show over a decade ago, that was most uplifting, Egan said.

New Yorkers of every station
“I was never so inspired by him as much as when he was brought low by his condition but continued to proclaim the Gospel,” Egan said. The sight of a global leader shaking with Parkinson's but pressing on showed the world the power of being humble.  “You and I have witnessed an incredible example of humility,” he said.

In attendance were the usual New York luminaries, including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.  But thousands of regular New Yorkers — and many tourists turned mourners — were also there.  They snaked around temporary barricades erected on Manhattan's 50th Street to organize the large crowd, and stood in the rain hoping to find a place at the cardinal's regular 10:15 a.m. Sunday Mass.

An even larger crowd -- which included Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York) -- gathered inside and outside the cathdral later in the day for a special 2 p.m. mass that was celebrated in Polish. The church was filled to capacity, and more than 1,000 worshippers overflowed into the steps of the cathedral, cramming the Fifth Avenue sidewalk, and listening to mass as it was piped outside over loudspeakers.

The morning service was somber, but not particularly sad. There were few tears, and many in the congregation said they were choosing to reflect on the pope's amazing life, rather than his death.

He’s at peace now’
“We were so fortunate to have him for all these years,” said Breda Perkins, visiting New York from her native Ireland.  “He's at peace now.”

Bob Sullivan  /  MSNBC.com
Mourners braved the rain outside St. Patrick's Cathedral for a chance to bid the pope farewell.
The church altar was adorned with images of the pope from healthier days — one almost entirely blocked the view of Egan at the altar. A bust of John Paul commemorating his visit to the New York cathedral in 1979 was strewn with flowers.  The Mass began with a traditional Easter season hymn, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” 

“This is a sad occasion in many ways, but in other ways it is a joyful one,” Egan said, adding that the faithful now believe the pope is with God in Heaven.  Still, recalling his initial meeting with the pope in Rome at his election in 1978, and the fact that John Paul gave him his post as cardinal in New York, Egan said he was struggling with the pope's passing.  “He was to me a kind of second father. To me, this is a tremendous loss.”

'A great pope'
Joe and Celia McClean were visiting New York from Coventry, England, when they heard about the pope's death and decided to attend the Mass.

“He was a great pope,” Joe McClean said, huddling with his wife under an umbrella.  “We are just here to celebrate his life.”

The Bible readings for the service included the familiar story of Doubting Thomas — an apostle who by Church teaching refused to believe in the resurrection of Christ until he was allowed to probe the crucified Jesus' wounds.

In his sermon, Egan stressed the humility of Christ, who did not scold Thomas for his disbelief, but rather invited him to investigate his resurrected body to satisfy his doubts.  John Paul's public suffering offered similar testimony and humility, Egan said. The pope never spoke louder than when he appeared in public on Easter Sunday and tried but was unable to speak a blessing, Egan said. 

“In the coming days, you will hear many stories of his greatness,” Egan said.  “Enjoy them ... but remember the last days, when he was Christ to us Thomases.”

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