Father Barron, reporting from Rome for NBC News and the Chicago Sun-Times, sent a post-beatification ceremony update for the Sun-Times website, commenting on his observation of the vast and vibrant crowd of attendees at the Beatification Mass for Blessed John Paul II. Read it here.
Making my way from my hotel near the Castel Sant’Angelo to the media platform at the foot of the Via della Conciliazione, where I was to do some color commentary for television, I was almost crushed by the crowds surging to the beatification ceremony for Pope John II. Through a combination of my Roman collar, the waving of my media badge and lots of prayers, I made it to my colleagues on the platform. What struck me as I pushed through the throng of humanity was that I heard pilgrims speaking Italian, English, French, German, Swahili, Spanish, Portuguese and, of course, Polish.
From the vantage point of the media tower, I looked down the entire length of the Via della Conciliazione all the way to the front portal of St. Peter’s Basilica, and I saw a sea of humanity, some 300,000 strong, waving banners, singing, clapping and praying. Estimates are that there were more than 700,000 other people crowding the surrounding neighborhoods. John Paul had visited the world, and the world was returning the favor. I could only smile at those critics who suggested that the process of beatification had moved too quickly. There were roughly a million people in Rome on Sunday who clearly thought it had taken too long!
For me, the most moving moment of the liturgy occurred when Pope Benedict XVI read the proclamation officially beatifying John Paul and a cry of joy went up from the masses that lasted about five minutes. This was so much more than a tribute to a great man; it was the delighted acknowledgement that we have a friend in heaven, an intercessor before the merciful God. During those five deeply moving minutes, you could practically sense heaven and earth coming together. I was also touched when Sister Tabiana, a Polish religious who had cared for John Paul for many years and who had cradled the pope’s head as he lay dying, brought forward a vial of John Paul’s blood as a relic to be venerated. The crowd was clearly pleased by the tapestry of the new Blessed that was unveiled just after the declaration. It was based upon a photograph of John Paul from 1995, when he was still very much in full vigor, and it conveyed a good deal of his charm and humor: the twinkling eyes, the sly, playful grin, the zucchetto slightly askew.
Participating in this festive jamboree of faith put me in mind of the World Youth Days, which John Paul had inaugurated and over which he presided with such panache. Lots of representatives of the John Paul II generation were here, young Catholics who came of age during John Paul’s papacy and were inspired by his idealism and his heroic living out of the Catholic life. I was asked by one of the reporters what I thought was John Paul’s greatest contribution to the American church, and I responded, without hesitation, that it was the emergence of the John Paul II generation of seminarians and priests, men who will massively influence the church in our country for decades to come.
Those who knew him well testify that John Paul had a keen sense of irony. He would therefore undoubtedly have found it delicious that his beatification was celebrated on May 1. The man most responsible for the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was declared blessed on the principal communist holiday! In his homily, Pope Benedict remarked that John Paul keenly understood that communism was based upon a faulty understanding of the human person and that much of the late pope’s teaching magisterium should be interpreted as an attempt to propose an alternative reading. If there is a master idea in the writings of John Paul II, it is that each human being, precisely as a child of God, is worthy of respect, and that no human life — even the weakest and most vulnerable — is dispensable.
Six years ago, at John Paul’s funeral mass, the crowds shouted “Santo Subito!” (Make him a saint right now!). As of today, the official church has come very close to ratifying that judgment.
The Rev. Robert Barron, a Chicago priest who is an acclaimed author, speaker and theologian, operates the website wordonfire.org . He is in Rome providing coverage for the Chicago Sun-Times and NBC.
Here are a couple of pictures of the NBC News crew reporting from Rome for the Beatification Mass:
Blessed John Paul II, pray for us!