Remembering John Paul II six years after his death
We were on our knees at the bedside of John Paul The Pope was lying in the semidarkness. The soft light of the lamp lit up the wall, but he was clearly visible.
When a few moments later the time came when the whole world would know, Archbishop Dziwisz suddenly stood up. He turned on the light in the room, thereby interrupting the silence of John Paul II's death. In emotional but surprisingly steady tones, he began to sing, in his typical mountain lilt, prolonging one of the syllables, "We praise you, O God: / we proclaim you as Lord".
The sound seemed to come from Heaven. We all look wonderingly at Fr Stanislaw. However with the light on, in singing the following words, each one of us found reassurance: "Everlasting Father, / All the world bows down before you". Here, we thought, we are in a totally different reality, John Paul II has died: this means that he lives for ever.
Even though we were shaken by heartfelt sobs and choked by tears, we went on singing. With every word our voices grew stronger and louder. The hymn proclaimed: "You overcame the power of death / Opening the Father's Kingdom to all who believe in you".
Thus, in singing the Te Deum, we glorified God, clearly visible and recognizable in the Pope's person.
In a certain sense this is also the experience of all who met him in the course of his Pontificate. Anyone who came into contact with John Paul II met Jesus, whom the Pope represented in himself; with his words, his silence, his gestures, his way of praying, his manner of interceding within the liturgy, his recollection in the sacristy; with his whole way of being. This was immediately apparent. He was a person filled with God. And for the world he had become a visible sign of an invisible reality, in spite of his body — disfigured by the suffering of his last years.
It often sufficed just to look at him to discover God's presence and thus to begin to pray. This was enough to make one go to Confession: not only for one's own sins, but also for not being as holy as he.
When he stopped being able to walk and during celebrations became totally dependent on the Masters of Ceremonies, I began to realize that I was touching a holy person. Perhaps I irritated the Vatican confessors when, before every celebration, I went to make my confession, impelled by an inner imperative and feeling a strong need. I needed to receive absolution in order to stand beside him.
When one is beside a holy person, when a human being in some way attains holiness, it shines from his whole body. Yet at the same time, one also feels in one's own skin a kind of temptation: evidently the evil spirit does not like the air of holiness.
When, at about three o'clock in the morning, I emerged from the Apostolic Palace, a crowd had gathered in the Borgo Pio. People were walking in deeply meditative silence. The world had stopped — some were kneeling and had been weeping. Some wept only because they had lost a person they loved and then went home as they had come. Others, combined with their visible grief their inner weeping, which welled up from feelings of inadequacy and unfaithfulness before the Lord. These tears were blessed. It was the beginning of the miracle of conversion.
On all the following days until the Pope's funeral, Rome became an Upper Room; all understood each another, even if they spoke different languages.
I had been in touch with the Pope for seven long years: during his life, but also at the moment when his soul departed his body. At the time of death we are left with nothing but mortal remains that will turn to dust; the body vanishes and the person is welcomed into God's mystery.
Laying out the late Pope's body is one of the tasks of the Masters of Ceremony. I did this for seven long days until the funeral. Shortly after his death, I dressed John Paul II, together with three nurses who had been looking after him for a long time. Although an hour and a half had passed since his death, they continued to talk to the Pope as though they were talking to their own father. Before dressing him in the cassock, alb and chasuble, they kissed and caressed him, touching him with love and reverence, just as if he had been a member of their own family. Their attitude did not only demonstrate their devotion to the Pontiff: I felt it represented the timid announcement of a forthcoming Beatification.
Perhaps for this reason I never dedicated myself to praying intensely for his Beatification, for I had already begun to take part in it.
Every day I celebrate the Eucharist in the Vatican Grottos. I see how the Basilica's employees and their families and all those who work at the various dicasteries and offices of the Vatican — the gendarmes, the gardeners, the drivers — begin the day with a moment of prayer at the tomb of John Paul II; they touch the gravestone and blow him kisses. It is like this every morning.
From 2000, the Pope began to grow weaker and weaker. He had great difficulty in walking. In preparing the Great Jubilee, Archbishop Piero Marini and I expressed the hope that he would at least be able to open the Holy Door. It was almost impossible to think of the future.
While I was in the mountains in Poland, I once heard this affirmation: "We still don't know each other, because we have not suffered together". For five long years Archbishop Marini and I shared in the Pope's suffering, in his heroic battle to bear his suffering.
The Words of Psalm 51:7 spring to my mind: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean", which can also be understood as: "Touch me with suffering and I shall be pure".
Being with John Paul II meant living in the Gospel, being inside the Gospel.
In the last years of my service beside him I realized that beauty is always linked to suffering. It is impossible to touch Jesus without touching the Cross. The Pontiff was so severely tried, albeit tormented by suffering, but this made him extremely beautiful, since he joyfully offered all he had received from God and joyfully gave back to God all he had received from him. Holiness, in fact — as Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say — does not only mean that we are offering everything to God but also that God takes from us everything that he has given us.
The athlete who hiked and skied it the mountains could now no longer walk. The actor had lost his voice. Little by little everything was taken from him.
Before beginning the funeral, Archbishop Dziwisz and Archbishop Marini covered the Pope's face with a silk cloth, a deeply meaningful symbol: his whole life had been concealed and hidden in God.
While they were performing this rite, I was standing by the coffin holding the Gospel Book, another powerful sign.
John Paul II was not ashamed of the Gospel. He lived in accordance with the Gospel. He solved all the problems of the world and of the Church in accordance with the Gospel. In accordance with the Gospel he had built the whole of his interior and exterior life.
The mystery of John Paul II, that is, his beauty, is expressed very clearly in the prayer of Pope Clement XI which was found in the old Breviaries. "I want to do what you ask of me: in the way you ask, for as long as you ask, because you ask it". Those who speak these words with their hearts become like Jesus who humbly conceals himself in the Host and offers himself to be consumed. Those who make these words their own begin to live with the spirit of worship of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Accompanying the Pontiff on his Apostolic Journeys, during the long-haul flights, I often wondered, where the centre of the world was. Thirteen days after the election the Pope went with some of his collaborators to Mentorella, not far from Rome, where the Shrine of the Mother of Grace is located. He asked his travelling companions: "What is most important for the Pope in his life and in his work?". They suggested to him: "Perhaps Christian unity, peace in the Middle East, or the destruction of the Iron Curtain...?". But he answered: "For the Pope the most important thing is prayer".
In my country there is the following saying: "The king is naked before the eyes of his servants". The better acquainted we became with John Paul II, the more convinced we were of his holiness, we saw it at every moment of his life. He did not obscure God. If I wished to indicate what is most important for priestly life and for each one of us, looking at him I could say: not to hide God with oneself, but on the contrary, to show him and to become the visible sign of his presence. No one has seen God, but John Paul II made him visible through his life.
When he prayed, I had the impression that he threw himself at Jesus' feet. When he prayed, one could see on his face his total entrustment to God. He was truly transparent; he was, to use a poetic image, like the rainbow that links heaven and earth, and his soul was running up the ladders joining earth to Heaven.
I now return to the question: "Where is the centre of the world?".
Little by little, I began to realize that the centre of the world was always where I was with the Pope: not because I was with John Paul II but because everywhere he happened to be he prayed. I understood that the centre of the world is where I pray, where I am with God, in the closest union that exists: prayer. I am at the centre of the world when I walk in God's presence, when "in him we live and move and have our being" (cf. Acts 17:28). When I celebrate or participate in the Eucharist I am at the centre of the world; when I hear Confessions and I make a Confession, in the confessional there is the centre of the world; the place and time of my prayer constitute the centre of the world because, when I pray, God breathes within me. The Pope let God breathe through him: every day he spent a long time before the tabernacle. The Blessed Sacrament was the sun that illuminated his life. And he went to that sun to warm himself with God's light.
John Paul II's life was woven of prayer. He always had between his fingers the rosary beads with which he addressed Mary, confirming his Totus tuus.
Once, after the accident in 1991, Cardinal Deskur brought the Pope a container of holy water from Lourdes and said to him, "Your Holiness, when you pour it on the painful part, you are supposed to recite the 'Hail Mary'". John Paul II answered: "Dear Cardinal, I always say the 'Hail Mary'".
My task in the Office of Liturgical Celebrations consists in taking care of papal celebrations under the Master's guidance and not of writing articles or preparing lectures. This is how it has been for thirteen years.
Ever since 2 April 2005, when someone asks me to give a testimony on John Paul II, I often answer: "Yes, with great joy". And I invite him or her to take part every Thursday in Mass in front of his tomb in the Vatican Grottoes. Just as I ask people to go to the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia, where every afternoon the Chaplet of Divine Mercy is recited, followed by the Way of the Cross. Priests who work or study in Rome, sisters and lay people meet in my apartment every Thursday evening. We say Vespers, we pray and we sit at table together.
Gathering in prayer and being together is to be at the centre of the world: I learned this from John Paul II.
I am not surprised that the Pope should be beatified on Divine Mercy Sunday, even if it is a surprise of Providence that this year it coincides with 1 May. Thus that day will speak mainly of holiness. Benedict XVI and John Paul II will transform the day into a religious event unprecedented in history: a May procession towards holiness and prayer.
*Assistant Papal Master of Ceremonies