Currently studying theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Jesuit Scholastic Michael Rogers recently had the opportunity to be in the Eternal City during the beatification of Pope John Paul II.
In an exclusive to National Jesuit News, Rogers shares his experience of the late pontiff’s beatification…
In the past few days it has always been crowded around the simplest tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica. This is not the tomb of St. Peter, with its grand Bernini Baldacchino, nor is it the one of the tombs of a pope surrounded by grand sculptures. This is a simple marble slab with the name of the pope buried there, engraved in red. The word around Rome is that the waiting list to offer a Mass at the altar of this tomb is already weeks long. Michelangelo’s Pietà, usually the main attraction in this section of the basilica, garners only a few visitors now. The crush of people has made it difficult to keep the Blessed Sacrament Chapel open lately, and so the tabernacle has shifted to the front of the church from where it usually resides. There, wedged between the chapels of the Pietà and the Blessed Sacrament, the resting place of Blessed John Paul II is simple, and yet there is a profound sense of the importance of this space to so many people.
When word broke back in January that John Paul II would be beatified last Sunday, I was among the first in my Jesuit community to say that I would be leaving Rome. Citing my desire to flee ahead of the crowds, I had planned to go south into the mountains of Calabria, or north to Tuscany. One thing, however, was sure. I was going to get out. Over the course of a couple of months my thoughts on this changed, though. The truth is that as the beatification day approached I wanted to be here more and more. When the invitation to distribute communion for the beatification arrived, all of my ideas about fleeing the city were cancelled, and I responded that I would be there.
It was 5:30am on the morning of May 1, 2011 and although tired, I headed off to a church event here in Rome. Wearing an old borrowed cassock, I crossed the Tiber not far from the General Curia of the Society and waited for the police escort to take us to where we would be distributing communion. In the crowd of over a million people, all around us you could hear languages from all over the world. There were groups of people singing and dancing. There was a sense of joy, and even among the many police who were clearly working overtime, there seemed to be a sense of relief that, for once, there was a gathering of people here in Rome that wasn’t a protest. The moment of this celebration was a moment to celebrate that one of us, someone whom we knew, had almost assuredly gone before us into the place where we all hope to go.
I have been wondering over the past few days just what it is that changed in me over the course of those months. Why did I want to stay here in Rome? Pictures of John Paul II have gone up all over the city; calendars with his face were on sale in nearly every gift shop. The number of Polish pilgrims to Rome increased exponentially; we had to add a Polish translation of the guidebook to the rooms of St. Ignatius. Churches put up little displays about John Paul II’s visit to their parishes. Even some of my Italian friends who are a little jaded about religion in general expressed excitement. It’s hard not to get swept up in that sort of energy, but the answer to why I found myself finally wanting to be here came one evening when I was out for a walk around the Quirinale with my friend Fiore, who works for one of the Church’s many social service agencies here in Rome.
In talking about John Paul II, Fiore told me about how much this Polish pope was loved by so many of the people here in Rome. It wasn’t because they always agreed with him, which they didn’t. It certainly wasn’t for his immediate mastery of Italian, which he asked them to excuse him for within minutes of being named pope. Rather, it was for one simple reason: they felt like they knew him. Over the course of his papacy, Blessed John Paul II, like any good diocesan bishop, visited the parishes of the diocese of Rome and got to know the people. He welcomed the young people of the Rome inside of the imposing walls of the Vatican, and did his best, despite coming from what he himself called “a far off land,” to do as the Romans did, and be as Roman as he could.
In that moment it struck me why I was getting more and more excited about John Paul’s beatification. The truth is that what made this pope special for Fiore, and for myself as well, was the sense that he was among us. We saw that he had a sense of humor; that he could laugh and be joyful. We knew that he hadn’t always handled everything perfectly as pope, but we still could see something that was genuinely admirable in this man as a human being. We were the JPII generation of the Church, and for the better part of our lives, he has been the only pope we have ever known.
His simple tomb makes sense. For all of the reasons why we admire Bl. John Paul II, something more ornate would betray the memory of a man whom we admire because of his common touch. My generation heard him offer to us the opportunity to open the doors to Christ, and to not be afraid to enter into that life. Somehow in the paradox of this simple, yet most visited tomb in the basilica, the reality of the weekend comes into focus. The tomb reminds us, and perhaps especially those of us just starting out in a life of service to the Church and the people of God, that the truth is that we don’t need to be perfect, or universally loved, or able to speak languages well. It does this in one word, etched in red on white marble, describing a man that we knew all too well. “Beato,” “Blessed.”