Pope Benedict XVI beatified Pope John Paul II before an estimated 2 million faithful in St. Peter's Square and surrounding streets this morning, moving the beloved former pontiff one step closer to probable sainthood in one of the largest turnouts ever for a Vatican Mass.
I am a devout Pagan, a faith-filled Solitary Practitioner of Wicca and have been for many years. Why then am I blogging about this "Catholic/Christian" event? Because I loved this man — enough to have gotten up at 4 a.m., E.S.T., to watch the Mass live.
Today's Mass occurred on Divine Mercy Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter. Pope Benedict wore the chasuble and mitre frequently worn by Pope John Paul II during his 26-year pontificate, which spanned from Oct. 22 1978, to April 2 2005.
I am a former Catholic, converting I realized later largely because of Pope John Paul II's magnetic, amazingly angelic-like personality. Had he not been Pope, I am sure that I would never have traveled down that faith path. Nonetheless, he remains my Pope, my beloved "Papa," and will until I am also dust.
The first-ever Polish Pope, traveled to 109 nations during his papacy. Each time he disembarked, he knelt and kissed the tarmac as a moving sign of respect for each country/nation that he visited, and also in humility. Later, when his health was ravaged by Parkinson's Disease and he was unable to kneel, his aides would bring a dish of native soil up to him to kiss.
It is interesting to note that a French nun, Sister Marie Simone-Pierre, who also suffered from Parkinson's Disease, prayed to the pontiff a week after his death, and received a complete cure. It was her experience that the Vatican investigated and confirmed as a "miracle," a necessary step toward Beatification.
When he died in 2005, the faithful had gathered exactly where today's ceremony was held. Then, the overflow crowd spontaneously erupted, chanting: "Santo Subito!" — meaning "Sainthood Now!" or "Sainthood Immediately!" They chanted it over and over again, unexpectedly stopping the Resurrection Mass for several moments. Their voices rang out through the square, filling it and echoing off the ancient Basilica with an indescribable intensity and yes, love. I truly felt chills watching it on TV thousands of miles away.
During today joyous Mass, an enormous tapestry of John Paul II based on a 1995 photograph by his then official photographer, Arturo Mari, was unveiled from the balcony of Saint Peter’s. It showed the pontiff with a twinkle in his eye, and a slightly wry smile.
[Note: The tapestry is depicted at the top of this post.]
To begin today's Beatification rite, Cardinal Agostino Vallini, vicar general of the Rome Diocese, and Mgr Slawomir Oder, the postulator of the Cause, approached Pope Benedict. In Latin, Cardinal Vallini formally requested, "the Beatification of the Servant of God Pope John Paul II."
In a short biography of the late Pontiff, who was born born Karol Józef Wojtyła on May 18 1920, the cardinal said the characteristic of John Paul II’s Faith and Pontificate were a devotion to God, and his complete, almost childlike trust in "Our Lady," the Virgin Mary. It was also mentioned that today was appropriate for the Beatification because it is the first of May, or to the faithful, first Sunday of "the Month of Mary." To me, it is appropriate because it is Wicca's Beltane — a celebration of life's renewal and wonder.
He went on to talk about John Paul’s missionary zeal and his love of young people for whom he established World Youth Day, which raised a loud cheer from young pilgrims in Rome for the Beatification.
Pope Benedict, of whom I am not fond, then declared that John Paul II's "name will forever be Blessed." It now remains for one more miracle to be reported and confirmed for him to be Canonized as a Saint.
"He restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope," Benedict said in his homily.
In John Paul's native country, tens of thousands of people gathered in rain in a major sanctuary in Krakow and in Wadowice, where the pontiff was born. Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his wife Malgorzata watched the ceremony together with Wadowice residents.
"I wonder what we would have been like and what would not have happened if we had not had our pope," Minister Tusk was quoted as saying. "All that good that we all have received is still working."
Blessed John Paul II, or John Paul the Great, was also given a formal "Feast Day," upon which he will be celebrated annually. His day is Oct. 22, which was the date of his first public Mass in 1978 as Pope, during which he repeated what was to become his mantra: "Do Not Be Afraid."
I am still shocked at how strongly I respond to him. I am liberal and disagreed with almost every stance he ever took on church policy. For some reason, none of that matters. What matters is how I felt when I saw him, and still feel when I remember him, or even look at a photograph.
John Paul’s was a papacy of milestones. In 1978, as Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow, he became the first non-Italian to become pope in four centuries. Under him, the church issued its first new catechism in nearly 500 years. In 2000, he asked pardon for the church’s sins against Jews, women, heretics (like me) and minorities. He was also the first pope to visit a Muslim mosque, and a Jewish synagogue.
He survived an assassination attempt by a Turkish gunman in 1981, a still-hazy chapter in Cold War history. He later visited the gunman in prison and forgave him. The man later said the Pontiff's visit changed his life.
When he was shot, I was not a Catholic at the time. Nonetheless, I sent my first and only Western Union telegram directly to the Vatican, telling him that he was in the prayers of those other than his own faith.
Blessed John Paul's closed coffin was exhumed from a crypt beneath the Basilica, and was placed at the center aisle during the ceremony. Pope Benedict kissed it reverently. He was followed by scores of cardinals who did the same. The simple wooden casket will be placed in a side chapel next to Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” allowing it to be viewed for the first time since his funeral.
During the Mass, Benedict received a silver reliquary holding a vial of blood taken from John Paul during his final hospitalization. The relic, a key feature of beatification ceremonies, will be available for the faithful to venerate.
It was presented to him by Sister Tobiana, the Polish nun who tended to John Paul throughout his pontificate, and Sister Marie Simone-Pierre.
Thousands of pilgrims, many of them from John Paul's native Poland, spent the night in sleeping bags on bridges and in piazzas around town, and then packed St. Peter's as soon as the barricades opened over an hour in advance because the crowds were too great.
They stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the main boulevard leading to the Vatican, Via della Conciliazione, as well as on side streets around it and the bridges crossing the Tiber leading to St. Peter's waving flags from Argentina, Germany, Great Britain and Lebanon.
It's the fastest beatification on record, coming just six years after John Paul died and beating out the beatification of Mother Teresa by a few days. It was also the first time a sitting Pope beatified his predecessor.
[Note above photo: The reliquary containing the blood of Pope John Paul II was placed on a pedestal during the beatification ceremony by Sister Marie Simon Pierre, right, who says she was cured of Parkinson's Disease after praying to John Paul II; and Sister Tobiana, who is also a nurse who cared for the late Pope.]
— Danu's Daughter