MILLIONS followed the events unfolding in Rome from February 1, 2005, the night when John Paul II was rushed to hospital, to April 2 when he went home to God.
During his last stays in hospital, a hillside outside the clinic was packed with media stands. They looked across at the fifth floor where the pope was confined to bed.
Shortly before he left, after a week in the clinic, I was interviewed by a tall Australian woman who asked how he would go back to the Vatican.
“Diana,” I assured her, “he is not going to return home in his pyjamas and dressing gown. He is going home dressed like the pope and sitting up.”
He did just that and was driven home to the Vatican in his popemobile.
In the end, John Paul II returned to the Vatican for Holy Week and Easter Sunday, but he could not even attend the ceremonies.
The following Saturday, on April 2, at 9.37pm, John Paul II died at home in the Vatican Palace.
Below his apartment thousands of young people had been keeping vigil – holding candles, singing hymns, and praying in various languages.
From the TV platform of the BBC overlooking St Peter’s Square, I followed this very public death and heard the huge, 10-tonne bell tolling his passing.
Hundreds of thousands of young people spontaneously converged on the city. Reportedly the last whispered message from John Paul II was to the young: “I went looking for you. You came to me, and for that I thank you”.
When the pope was carried out of the Vatican Palace and through St Peter’s Square, he was held up high in a open casket. He seemed like a Viking king being carried through the midst of his people to his last rites.
On Friday, April 8, the world stood still for the funeral of the pope.
For many the most moving moment was when the coffin bearers raised the wooden coffin from the ground and carried John Paul II slowly and solemnly past the rows of presidents, monarchs, princes, prime ministers and other powerful leaders.
It was as if John Paul II was preaching his last sermon to them and saying: “You too are mortal. You too must face death and go home to God”.
After days taken up with further Masses and meetings, on Monday, April 18, 115 cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel to elect a successor to John Paul II.
They did so the following day.
I was privileged to be with BBC World when white smoke came out of the chimney above the Sistine Chapel at 5.55 on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 19.
In the old days the white smoke was a signal for a cannon to be fired from Castel Sant’ Angelo and to let the people of Rome know that a new pope had been elected.
This time the white smoke was to be accompanied by bells ringing out across Rome to announce the news.
But it took about 10 or 15 minutes before the bell ringers were reached and the bells began to ring out the message: “Habemus papam” (We have a pope).
The key to the phone in the Sistine Chapel for contacting the bell ringers was in the pocket of the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
He had just been elected Pope, and had slipped into a small room next to the Sistine Chapel and was changing into his white garments.
That was my experience, that was the world’s experience, in those dramatic weeks from February to April 2005 when John Paul II faced the last stages of his illness, died and was buried, and his successor was elected and began his work as Benedict XVI.
The words with which Benedict ended the homily at his inaugural Mass sum up what John Paul II stood for: If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and good.
Fr Gerald O’Collins is an Australian Jesuit priest who teaches theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. Among his latest books is Catholicism: The Story of Catholic Christianity, Oxford University Press.
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