The semester of a lifetime

My friend Jenny is hosting a link-up of favorite John Paul II stories, and I thought it would be fun to jump in.  This is actually my first official link-up.  Crazy, huh?


Anyone who knows me, has heard me speak, or has read my blog for awhile knows my John Paul II story.  It’s not just a moment, it’s three months of moments, beginning on February 2, 2005, when 29 juniors in college boarded a plane for Rome to study abroad.  John Paul II had just been admitted to the hospital the day before, but I’m not sure any of us fully comprehended what might await us that semester.  Certainly none of us dreamed our last Sunday in Rome would be the installation Mass of our new Holy Father, Benedict XVI.

I remember seeing John Paul II for the last time.  It was Wednesday, March 30, and a group of us were leaving for Paris the following day.  In the last months of his life, instead of his large General Audiences in the Square, John Paul would come to his window and greet pilgrims at 11am.  I knew we needed to be there that Wednesday.  When 11am came and went, rumors began spreading that he wasn’t coming.  We had seen him a few days earlier, on Easter Sunday, but none of us realized how sick he was.  I think we were so used to seeing him suffer and had witnessed so many false alarms, we hadn’t fully comprehended that his health was really failing.

When he came to the window, he couldn’t even speak.  I looked at the television screen and saw the anguish in his face, and it was as if I was seeing the suffering for the first time.  He was preaching his last homily, proclaiming his last encyclical, addressing his last apostolic exhortation.  It was silent. It was the Cross.

Two days later, I was in Notre Dame Cathedral kissing the crown of thorns, unaware that my Holy Father was on Calvary for one last time.

Our first night in Paris, we stayed at the convent at Sacré-Coeur.  Spartan living arrangements were embraced enthusiastically for a few euros and the opportunity to pray in front of the exposed Blessed Sacrament in the basilica in the middle of the night.  For some reason, however, the Sisters said we could only stay one night in the convent.  While we were upset at the change of plans, if we hadn’t been forced to find other lodging, we never would have had access to CNN — where we saw on Friday night for the first time that John Paul II was dying.

Saturday evening we headed up Montmartre for Compline and 10pm Mass.  We were going to be late for Compline, and for a feeling I couldn’t explain, I knew I had to be at Compline. We raced up the steps, and as we entered the darkness of the basilica, my legs were weak, I was sweaty, and I thought I was going to faint. I glanced at my watch.  9:35. We had made it just in time.  We made our way through the basilica and knelt in front of the exposed Blessed Sacrament.

Two minutes later, John Paul II died.

We didn’t know, of course, nor did anyone else in the basilica.  Instead, the city of Paris- the youth, the businessmen, the married couples, the families- all gathered together in that beautiful basilica and celebrated the vigil of Divine Mercy together, praying for our beloved John Paul II.  When we returned to our hotel, the other girls ran up to our room to turn on CNN.  I stood in the lobby, my eyes transfixed to the television screen.  He was gone.

The next week was a blur. When we returned to Rome the day after he died, we headed straight to St. Peter’s.  Although morning Mass was long over, the Square was packed.  No one wanted to leave, as if leaving his window meant leaving him.  People were singing songs, praying the rosary, sharing memories.  We said the Divine Mercy chaplet and then headed back to our house.

The next afternoon, knowing the crowds were only going to multiply, a group of us headed to St. Peter’s to pay our respects to the only Holy Father we had ever known.  That night was completely surreal.  Standing in line for hours, passing makeshift shrines with candles, signs, and intentions, watching clips of John Paul II on the jumbotrons that were set up in the Square and all the way down Via Conciliazione.

Although it’s two football fields away, Bernini’s Holy Spirit window was clearly visible as we walked up the main steps of St. Peter’s and straight through the main doors.  The whole way up to his body lying in state, that window was in front of our eyes, lit up despite the darkness outside.  The theme from World Youth Day, Jesus Christ, You are my Life, was playing. To this day, it’s hard to hear that without weeping.

But the overwhelming feeling was not sadness.  It was triumph.  The music swelled, and we entered the bright basilica, still staring at the Holy Spirit window.  His suffering was over.  The victory was won.  And the Holy Spirit would take care of us now.

 “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.
He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.”
John 1:4-9




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