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Days of Mourning
The final act of a scripted life.


Pope John Paul II was laid out in his liturgical vestments to receive the homage of the dignitaries of Church and state on April 3, 2005. On the afternoon of April 4th, the ordinary faithful got their chance in St. Peter's Basilica, where hundreds of thousands were expected to pay their respects before a funeral later this week, the date of which will be announced today.

… many of the priests and theologians in attendance were almost cheerful in considering the timing of John Paul's death as another remarkable feat of timing …

The funeral is expected to draw some 200 world leaders to St. Peter's Square, including Prime Minister Paul Martin.

President George W. Bush ordered all U.S. government and military buildings to fly the flag at half staff until sunset on the day of the Pope's burial. It is expected that President Bush will lead the U.S. delegation himself, and Italian media reports indicated that his father would also attend.

An emergency meeting of the Italian Cabinet was held yesterday to handle preparations for an influx of pilgrims expected to top one million, including tens of thousands from Poland alone.

Italy announced three days of national mourning in which no professional sports will be played. Poland announced six days of mourning, and in Cuba, Fidel Castro surprised many by announcing three days of national mourning. The Vatican itself observes nine days of official mourning, after which the preparations for the election of John Paul's successor will begin in earnest.

Yesterday, the Vatican also announced medical details of John Paul's death, indicating he died of septic shock and cardio-respiratory failure. The death documents also indicated—for the first time officially—that the Pope had Parkinson's disease; previously, the papal spokesman had only indirectly revealed the Parkinson's diagnosis, in a newspaper interview in the late 1990s.

More interesting were the liturgical aspects of the Holy Father's death, also released yesterday. Those details indicated a providential end to a remarkably providential life.

It was announced that at 8 p.m. on Saturday night—97 minutes before John Paul died—a Mass was celebrated in the Holy Father's presence.

In addition to his Polish household staff, Marian Cardinal Jaworski of Ukraine was present. Cardinal Jaworski befriended the young Karol Wojtyla some 50 years ago. In 1967, when then Archbishop Wojtyla was summoned to Rome to be made a cardinal, Fr. Jaworski took his place at a visitation in the city of Olsztyn. En route by train, there was an accident, and Fr. Jaworski lost a hand. On Saturday, Cardinal Jaworski attended the deathbed of the Pope, blessing him with his damaged hand.

While the enormous crowds that gathered for the Mass in St. Peter's Square were subdued but not despondent—even applauding when the Pope's words were read out—many of the priests and theologians in attendance were almost cheerful in considering the timing of John Paul's death as another remarkable feat of timing—or God's providence.

Yesterday, known as the Second Sunday of Easter, was designated as the Feast of Divine Mercy in 2000 by John Paul. It was the final step in a process that began with apparitions to a young Polish nun, Sr. Faustina, in the 1930s. In those apparitions, Sr. Faustina saw a vision of Jesus in which he asked her to spread throughout the world the message of his mercy, and to devote the Sunday after Easter as a special feast of "divine mercy." It was a tall task for an obscure Polish nun from Krakow.

But her message spread, and in the 1960s, Archbishop Wojtyla of Krakow took up her cause. When elected Pope in 1978, the "divine mercy" devotion became more widely known, and John Paul chose the title "Rich in Mercy" for his second encyclical letter, focused on God the Father. He canonized Sr. Faustina in April, 2000—noting that the "first saint of the new millennium was a daughter of Poland."

That he would die on the vigil of the new feast, after the Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday was celebrated in his presence, was thought by many here to be one final papal act—another opportunity to preach the mercy of God, with the body if not with words.

April 2 was also the first Saturday of the month, a day traditionally devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Catholic practice. John Paul, whose papal motto Totus Tuus (Totally Yours) reflected his devotion to Mary, therefore died on a special Marian day.

On a day observed as sombre, but not really sad, there was a heightened sense that this death was simply the final act in a life of a former stage actor whose life had always seemed unusually scripted. Scripted not according to the secular calendar, but to the rhythms of the liturgical year.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain of Newman House, the Roman Catholic chaplaincy at Queen's University in Kingston.

Originally published in the National Post, April 4, 2005.

 

 
 
 
 

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