Simon Ellis followed the funeral of Pope John Paul II on television on Friday 8 April, and was much moved by it and how it spoke to the millions who were watching
It was a funeral without precedent. At one time in history world leaders would be in attendance to influence the conclave, but here leaders gathered simply to pray and give thanks. We were given at the same time, a funeral mass like every other, underlining somehow the personal humility of the man whose last will and testament expressed the desire to be buried below ground in the soil. The Christian faith embraces the earth. And the soil, the humus, which he had kissed, he now embraced, in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life.
There were three biblical phrases Pope John Paul II marked out for his ministry, and one was about the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. His tireless globetrotting ministry across 130 countries had been more than a fulfilment of this. As Cardinal Ratzinger said in his homily: John Paul was a priest to the last, he ‘offered his life to the last for his flock and the entire human family’.
As we watched the funeral mass unfold, there were many memorable images. Brother Roger of Taizé coming forward to receive communion, symbolizing the hope many had for unity in the Church and the centrality of the mission to the young, which both men had epitomised. This was symbolised too in the offertory gifts brought to the altar by young Kenyans, Mexicans and Jordanians, to name a few. Brother Roger, brought to the altar in a wheelchair, was, like John Paul, coming towards the stage in his life when ‘you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and carry you’ (John 21, the text for the gospel).
The homily will repay further reflection. It was full of personal affection and stopped just short of beatification! The banners in St Peter’s Square were bolder, proclaiming ‘Santo Subito’ (Make him a saint quickly). Cardinal Ratzinger made reference to the window of the apostolic palace where Pope John Paul had been seen so heroically on the last occasion on Easter Day, and he continued, ‘We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.’ This drew great applause from the crowd.
One of the gifts of our television and satellite age is the ability visually to link worship throughout the world. It is a reminder of a theological reality which has always been true of the worship of the Church: that we unite with Christians throughout the world, and across time and space, the Church expectant, militant and triumphant. Here this was brought into focus when at various moments during the BBC coverage we were taken to Krakow where 800,000 gathered for a Mass, in the same field where in 1979 three million had gathered in defiance. We were reminded of Pope John Paul’s lasting legacy to Poland, of guiding them from tyranny to hope. No wonder 800 coaches had travelled to Rome from Poland and many Poles attended the funeral including Lech Walensa and – yes! – General Jaruselski, who described his one-time enemy as ‘one of the finest men of the century’.
A Polish tradition states that those who die in the octave of Easter go straight to heaven, riding on the back of the risen Lord! Whether or not the process of canonization proceeds relatively quickly, it is surely our hope and prayer that the 148th pope will join the 78 popes who have been declared to be saints, joining the 400 saints the church declared during his 26 year pontificate. Maybe he will one day share with Leo and Gregory the title of greatness.
As I watched the liturgy, though, I felt that the balance had been struck, and the chant of Kyrie eleison sung by the Eastern rite Catholic and Orthodox bishops at the conclusion of the commendation, spoke most powerfully. His simple cedar coffin, sprinkled with holy water reminded us of the baptism for the forgiveness of sins and we note the liturgical colour was not the presumptuous white used so often now, but red, the traditional colour for popes, indicating the call to witness.
We know from conversations we had with many people – not least at the Caister and Stand Up For Jesus celebration which took place at the same time – that there was great affection for this man, making it all the more painful that we did not yet break bread together with him. One of the stories Bishop Christopher Hill quoted at the SSC Conference was on the occasion of the visit to Rome of Archbishop Robert Runcie in 1997. After a long morning of work and then a lavish lunch, washed down with good Italian wine, Pope John Paul said to Archbishop Runcie that he hoped that ‘our affective collegiality would become effective collegiality’. I hope I do not speak out of turn when I say that members of SSC recall painfully that the realization of this hope was curtailed by the Anglican Church and not by Rome, for all her real or perceived shortcomings.
In the end, though, the funeral architecture propelled us forward as it always does. Two images hung: the crucifix near the coffin, and the image of the Risen Lord beckoning John Paul II and all the departed to a heavenly home, to the eternal city, accompanied by the prayers of the saints, supremely Mary, whose initial was marked on the coffin as a reminder of the reliance of this man and us all on her powerful intercession. As the coffin was taken to its final resting place in St Peter’s Basilica, Mary’s Magnificat was sung, recalling the one who did God’s will and of the Pope’s motto Totus tuus.
Eamon Duffy commented on the day of the funeral that ‘there are many who are wrapping themselves in the mantle of Peter’. Yes, he was our ‘Papa’ too and we pray as members FiF that our commitment to unity will be re-consecrated at this moment. Effective collegiality is our goal, whatever history appears to teach. Might we also hope and pray that there might be a renewal – especially in the most secular parts of Europe – in the priesthood and religious life, that young men and women might be inspired to offer their lives to the Lord? That would be one of the best legacies of this papacy.