Seven years ago today Pope John Paul II died in Rome and the world lost one of the truly great and heroic men of the last century. The world had witnessed for many years his courageous fight against many infirmities including Parkinson’s Disease, but the condition that claimed his life was actually septic shock that had developed from a urinary tract infection.
The lights in the Papal apartment were kept burning throughout the night as the world kept watch awaiting the inevitable and tens of thousands kept a prayerful vigil in St. Peter’s Square. Several hours before his death the Pope’s last words were, “Let me depart to the house of the Father.” He did go to the Father’s embrace at 9:37 PM Rome time (3:37 PM EST) and shortly afterward a Cardinal made the announcement to the world.
I remember the events of those moving days as though it were yesterday. Maria and I had been praying for the pope with everyone else, especially at mass each day during the Octave of Easter (Easter is such a great Solemnity that one day is not an adequate celebration so the Church celebrates Easter for 8 days). Pope John Paul II died at a truly amazing time. He died on the seventh day of the Octave of Easter. Also, he who had been so dedicated to the Blessed Mother and who attributed his miraculous survival from the assassination attempt on his life in 1981 to her protection, died on Saturday, the day the Church honors the Blessed Mother in a special way. He loved the Blessed Virgin so much that he took as his apostolic motto when he became pope ‘totus tuus’, a Latin phrase that means ‘totally yours’. Lastly, he died on the Vigil of the Feast of the Divine Mercy. St. Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun who died in 1938 and had locutions from Our Lord that she recorded in a diary, was told by Jesus that He desired that a Feast of Mercy in honor of His infinite mercy be celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter. (Divine Mercy in my Soul, Diary 699) It was John Paul II himself who had the honor on April 30, 2000 of both canonizing Sr. Faustina and officially designating the first Sunday after Easter as the Feast of Mercy. He died on the feast that he himself established! In 2011 he was beatified on Divine Mercy Sunday.
I was working as a counselor in Philadelphia in 2005 and had to work the Saturday that John Paul II died. I remember being distracted that morning as I had several counseling sessions with clients at an agency in North Philadelphia. I anxiously listened to the radio for updates as I drove home that afternoon. It was raining torrentially and the traffic was backed up on the Schuylkill Expressway as I heard the dreaded announcement that our beloved pope had died. I began weeping like a baby and I was glad that the heavy rain prevented those in other vehicles from seeing me. What did it matter if they saw me, anyway? I was only seven when he was elected pope in 1978 and he was the only pope that I’d ever known. It felt like I was losing a father.
The dark skies and the rain reflected the mood of that somber occasion. Therese spoke about this same reflection of her mood in nature after her Uncle Isidore Guerin forbade her to become a Carmelite nun at the age of 15. She expressed that, “I felt I was all alone in the Garden of Gethsemane like Jesus, and I found no consolation on earth or from heaven; God Himself seemed to have abandoned me. Nature seemed to share in my bitter sadness, for during these three days the sun did not shine and the rain poured down in torrents. (I have noticed in all the serious circumstances of my life that nature always reflected the image of my soul. On days filled with tears the heavens cried along with me; on days of joy the sun sent forth its joyful rays in profusion and the blue skies were not obscured by a single cloud.)” (Story of A Soul, p. 109-110) Likewise, Therese experienced a similar solidarity with nature when Fr. Delatroette, the ecclesiastical Superior of the Lisieux Carmel, also forbade her entrance into the cloister. “I left the rectory in tears, and fortunately my umbrella was able to hide them as the rain was coming down in torrents. Papa was at a loss as to how to console me.” (Story of A Soul, p. 111) Of course, my brother and his wife were married on a rainy day and they have enjoyed a happy marriage. Despite what Alanis Morissette sang about in her song ‘Ironic’, the rain on their wedding day even seemed to make the celebration under the garden tent seem romantic and cozy. This prescription of Therese can be changed to suit your own purposes!
On an apostolic pilgrimage to Lisieux on June 2, 1980 Pope John Paul II prayed in the infirmary where St. Therese had died 83 years earlier. He paid homage to ‘the greatest saint of modern times’. We, in turn, prayed in spirit at the bedside of John Paul the Great seven years ago paying tribute to the man who made an indelible, positive mark on the Church and the modern world.