NEW YORK — The "Today" show's Matt Lauer was in Vatican City as Pope John Paul II's health took a turn for the worse late last week and through the announcement of his death on Saturday.
He describes the overwhelming outpouring of grief at the pope's death and how the pontiff's incredible selflessness seemed to be the characteristic that united so many divergent people in mourning his passing.
You were in Rome from early Friday morning when fears were raised about the pope’s health through the announcement of his death on Saturday. Can you describe how the mood changed?
It was extremely tense for the day and a half after I arrived. All day Friday — we had learned that the pope had had an episode of heart failure — and throughout that day, the fears for his condition grew.
So, there was just a constant stream of people coming in to St. Peter’s Square to say prayers for the pope.
On Saturday morning, for a brief time, I think there was almost a ray of hope in that one of the updates came on his health, and the mere fact that he hadn’t passed away gave the people in the square some kind of lift. There was spontaneous applause and there was singing and there was clapping. It was almost incongruous because it was almost a festive atmosphere.
Of course, once the news came on Saturday night that he had passed away, there was almost a sense of stunned silence.
I heard you say that after the pope’s death was announced, people began just walking towards St. Peter’s. Can you describe what it was like to see that sea of humanity fill St. Peter’s?
We had left St. Peter’s Square at the end of that day. We were pretty much finished broadcasting and didn’t expect to get another update until in the morning, so we were actually getting something to eat, a few of us from the show. All of a sudden, someone we knew came in and walked over to our table, and told us that the pope had died.
The first thing you could sense was the reaction in the restaurant. We got up immediately and by the time we were heading out to our cars, I could see other people in the restaurant getting up. Then I could see people coming out of other buildings. The word was probably only five minutes old at the time, but it was spreading.
As we drove toward Vatican City, all of a sudden there was enormous traffic. Everybody seemed to be flooding the same streets, heading in the direction of Vatican City.
Then the sidewalks were just filled with people holding hands — either standing still or some people were embracing. Some people standing by cars, listening to the radio. The majority of people were just walking toward St. Peter’s Square.
When I say “people,” there were thousands of people. In the last several blocks before the intersection between Rome and Vatican City, there were just thousands of people walking on the sidewalks quietly. Not saying anything.
You could just tell, they just wanted to be there. They realized it was too late. They realized the pope had passed away. But, in some way, they just wanted to be there on that night. Either to say they were part of that historic moment or just to offer their respect.
After speaking with so many different analysts, experts, and religious leaders who knew the pope in so many ways, as well as personally, was there one description of him that you think summed up his life and legacy best for you?
I didn’t think there was one person who pretty much put his or her finger on it. I think that it was kind of the combination of all of those people that made me stop and think.
When it comes right down to it, [it doesn't matter] whether you agree with the pope’s stand on church doctrine and so many of the social and political issues that he faced during his 26 years as pope or that we face today. Whether you agree with that or not, that’s for you to decide and that’s in many ways a very personal decision.
But, what I think everyone was unanimous in thinking was, how many of us, if asked, would agree to dedicate 26 years of our lives to others?
And I mean, completely to others. Not like, OK, I’ll spend most of my day doing things for me and then I’ll spend three or four hours a day helping others.
This man gave 26 years of his life — the last 26 years of his life — to be a champion of other people.
I don’t know anybody in my life who would be that unselfish, who would make that sacrifice. That is what is extraordinary about this man and what so many people identify with.
The incredible selflessness with which he lived his life. It is one of the demands of that job that I don’t think anybody can really identify with. You don’t have a personal life anymore. You are living for other people. You become an advocate for every other person you come in contact with.
It’s one of the reasons, with all the talk now about the College of Cardinals and who they may elect as the next pope, that many people who are far more well-versed than I am, will tell you that the vast majority of the cardinals don’t want the job.
In our culture we tend to think of things like politics where a lot of mayors want to be governors and congressmen want to be senators. Everyone dreams that fantasy of becoming president. Or in a corporate world, every manager wants to be CEO. Or most do. This is different because of the fact that it is such an all-encompassing job.
What did the incredible turnout in St. Peter’s say about the vitality or otherwise of the Roman Catholic Church today?
The incredible turnout is an indication of how easily or how well this man connected with the masses.
Does the church face some issues? Absolutely. Is it a promising look to the future? Absolutely.
In some ways, if I were a church official, I would say what happened over the last week in Vatican City is perhaps your best recruiting tool.
Perhaps you look and you say to the people of the world: look at what faith can do, look at how it can move people and look at how it can make you feel like you are part of something special.
I think a lot of people may be drawn to the church based on what they’ve seen.
Does that mean the church doesn’t face some very divisive issues, no.
But, even if it’s not that you go off an embrace Catholicism. I don’t think anyone that experienced what we did over these last several days, especially if you were up close to it in Vatican City, can walk away without feeling a greater sense of spiritual connection. To anything. To whatever your own set of beliefs are.
I definitely feel more spiritually connected in a lot of important ways following this experience.
Matt Lauer is the co-anchor of NBC News Today Show. He recently returned from covering Pope John Paul II's death in Vatican City.