Talk about being in the right place at the right time!

It was September 2003, and I was leading a pilgrimage to Rome for a group of Catholic CEOs, members of Legatus.  We were so busy–Every day of our pilgrimage was filled with tours of historic basilicas, meetings with Vatican officials, lunches and dinners and gelato stands and, of course, daily Mass.  In the entire week we were in Rome, I slept little.  There was only one “free” night, when members of our group were encouraged to explore the Eternal City and have dinner in a restaurant of their choosing.

Only one night that I, too, was free.

A friend from the office needed to find religious articles; and since I knew of the small shop just to the right of St. Peter’s Basilica, we set off on foot from our hotel to do a bit of last-minute shopping.

But as we neared the Basilica, we found the shop closed, and St. Peter’s Square filled with native Italians, all heading into the great doors of the Basilica.  “There must be something going on!” I exclaimed; and we joined the throngs of the faithful, heading up the steps to the portico.  Finally, we were inside the basilica–and to my surprise, it was filled with rows of inexpensive plastic chairs.  I marched toward the nearest available seats–perhaps twenty rows from the front.  What was happening?

My co-worker, though, had gifts to purchase!  He muttered, “I need to shop!  I’m hungry!  The Pope won’t be here!  It’ll be in Italian!”  and he was on his feet, headed toward the exit.  I remained in my seat, watching him hurry out.  Just as he stepped through the doors, the weighty bronze doors were slammed shut; he was locked out, and I was locked in.

And it was a Mass.

And Pope John Paul II was there.

Separated from my tour group, alone among the Italians, I was at the Pope’s Mass!  I felt guilty for not bringing the rest of the group–but it was too late.  The privilege, this time, was to be mine alone.

The faithful wait for Mass to begin at the great altar in St. Peter’s Basilica,
September 27, 2003

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An usher distributed printed programs; and I learned that the Mass (on September 27, 2003) was in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the deaths of the two popes who had preceded Pope John Paul II:  his immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul I, who had lived only 33 days after ascending to the papacy; and Pope Paul VI.

When the Mass began and the sound of Gregorian chant wafted down from the choir loft, Pope John Paul II rode up the center aisle on a custom-built platform, assisted by members of the Swiss Guard.  As he passed our row, the pontiff made the Sign of the Cross, blessing the faithful gathered for this historic event.

A gentleman seated near me scolded me for taking photos during a liturgical celebration; so I snapped only one more, once the Mass was underway.  By that time it was night, and the great Basilica–the mother church for Catholics worldwide–was almost gloomy.  You can see Pope John Paul II, though, seated before the altar.

Pope John Paul II seated before the high altar

Pope John Paul II was the official presider at the Mass; but weakened by Parkinson’s and by an intestinal ailment which had kept him from the Wednesday General Audience, he was not able to stand beneath Bernini’s great  baldacchino for the entire liturgy.  Instead, the pope was seated in a chair immediately in front of the altar, facing the people.

The principal celebrant, representing him at the altar, was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the future Pope Benedict XVI), who was joined by other cardinals present in Rome.  (Sorry that my camera captured only this blurred image in the darkened basilica.)

The Mass was in Italian and Latin; the homily, in Italian, so I could not understand.  I was so pleased, though, to be present for this momentous occasion.

The international Catholic news agency Zenit offered a full report:  

The Holy Father, appearing in public Saturday for the first time since an intestinal ailment kept him from Wednesday’s general audience, highlighted his predecessors’ ability to dialogue.

They did not give in to the judgments of the moment or views connected to contingent interests,” he said during the homily. “Firmly anchored in the Truth, they did not hesitate to dialogue with all men of good will.”

They were enormously free, as they were conscious that the Holy Spirit ‘blows where he wills,’ guiding in different ways the path of the history of salvation,” the Pope added.

He recalled the Christian joy of Paul VI on one hand, and the smile of John Paul I on the other, who “in one month won over the world.”

John Paul II participated in the Mass, celebrated by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and other cardinals present in Rome.

John Paul II himself read the homily in a weak voice, on the day he commemorated the 45th anniversary of his own episcopal consecration as auxiliary bishop of Krakow, Poland.

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Another Holy Pope:  The Cause for Pope John Paul I 

Also at the liturgy, Father Pasquale Liberatore, postulator of the cause of beatification of John Paul I, announced that the process of investigation into the cause would formally open in the Cathedral Basilica of Belluno on November 23, 2003.  Although the investigation was begun in the Diocese of Belluno, where Albino Luciani, the future John Paul I, was born, three processes would take place in the collection of testimonies: one in Vittorio Veneto, where he was bishop (1958-1969), another in Venice, where he was patriarch (1969-1978), and one in Rome, where he was Pope for 33 days.  

On October 12, 2012, the documents regarding an alleged miracle were delivered to the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Amato, moving Pope John Paul I one step closer to sainthood.