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A Seminarian at the Papal Funeral | by Joseph Previtali


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I was blessed to be able to attend the beautiful funeral of Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square.

The opportunity arose on the Wednesday morning before the funeral, when a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, who works for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was able to secure tickets for four brother seminarians and me to sit in the priests' section at the funeral. The only stipulation was that we were to be dressed in choir (cassock and surplice) and that we were to arrive at 7:00 am for the 10:00 am funeral.

After negotiating the already-large crowd at the south entrance of the Basilica, we were in our seats at 7:30 am. The time of waiting was somewhat akin to the interim period between batting practice and the first pitch at a baseball game, but, of course, on a much higher level. There was great anticipation about what was to come.

At first, there was a lot of talk about the Pope. We read his beautiful Last Will and Testament and talked about his pontificate. It became clearer that we were at the funeral of one of Divine Providence's most famous instruments.

Then, as the dignitaries began to arrive, there was some stargazing. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, pro-life Sen. Rick Santorum and actor Jim Caviezel; pro-abortion politicians Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Patrick Leahy, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi; and of course President and Mrs. Bush, who presented themselves with dignity at the funeral. Also, there were the Belgian princesses, with their black funeral headdresses and courtly appearance, and the heads of state and representatives of other religions seated.

But after reflecting on the reason why all these famous people were there – the death of the Vicar of Peter, the Vicar of Christ – their appeal dissipated and I entered into spiritual preparation for the Mass.

The Mass began with the haunting and beautiful Requiem Mass introit. As the cardinals processed out of St. Peter's and reverenced the altar, the solemnity and gravity of the occasion began to grow. When Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger emerged from the main doors of the Basilica, there was heightened consciousness that this was a momentous occasion. Cardinal Ratzinger looked like a pope. But he didn't look like The Pope. There was an intuitive understanding that he is, without a doubt, the leader of the Church right now, but that the Keys will probably be handed on to someone else.

Cardinal Ratzinger has been the colonel to John Paul II's general since he became Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981. That was apparent at the Pope's 25th anniversary Mass in October 2003 when Cardinal Ratzinger read his very personal and heartfelt letter to the Pope honoring him for his achievements. And it was apparent at the funeral when he commended his dear friend to God. Not only was he the general's colonel, but there were no other colonels. Or if there were, Ratzinger was the only one the general himself considered to be like another general. The general and colonel had been fighting in the trenches together for almost twenty-five years.

In light of that relationship, there was a sense in which the funeral was also the sunset of Cardinal Ratzinger's time as a prominent Churchman, especially since he is 77 years old. It was fitting that he should be the celebrant at his general's funeral. It was moving when he referred to the Pope by his first name during the homily. It was stirring to see him so clearly as the leader of the Church during this interregnum. The Church is in very capable hands with Ratzinger as Dean of the College of Cardinals. He was an integral part of the greatness of John Paul's pontificate.

Cardinal Ratzinger's homily spoke of the Gospel and of the life of Karol Wojtyla. He interwove the two perfectly, showing us with his words that John Paul's was a life in Christ. The Pope's presence was especially felt when Ratzinger recalled that just as John Paul II had looked upon us and blessed us so many times in St. Peter's Square from the window of the Apostolic Palace, so too does he now look upon us and bless us from the window of the House of the Father in Heaven. At that time, everyone present could see in their mind's eye John Paul II's smiling, young, strong, face looking over the windowsill, with him raising his hands in gratitude to the crowd for their respect and honor in attending his funeral.

The Polish people, in particular, were very impressive. They came in droves to Rome, according to some reports, numbering over 2 million. I looked back over the crowd a few times during the Mass, and the sea of red and white was a powerful sign of their devotion to their native son. When the crowd began shouting, "Santo! Santo!", there was a deep confirmation of what many of us already know: John Paul II is in Heaven interceding for his beloved Bride during her interregnum. The sensus fidei has been on display for the world to see during this time of mourning and celebration.

As Cardinal Ratzinger began the final Rites of Commendation, the crowd realized that John Paul's remains were about to be carried out of their sight for the last time. After the prayer, a great applause erupted from the hearts of the faithful. I have never clapped so hard in my life. Tears were welling up in my eyes as I realized that I was saying my final goodbye to the Pope before his burial. The gentiluomini then lifted his casket and brought it to the threshold of St. Peter's Basilica. There, they turned around and presented John Paul II to the crowd for his final farewell. There was not a dry eye in all of Rome.

Pope John Paul II is no longer with us on Earth, and the Church is left with out a Universal Shepherd and Father in this world. We must pray for the College of Cardinals before and during the conclave. The conclave is not just something that the Church has already done 263 times and will routinely do again. In the thought of John Paul II himself, the conclave is the historical nexus of Creation and the Last Judgment. The handing on of the Keys is a Providence-driven historical event that continues to ensure the existence of Jesus' Church until He comes again in glory.

In closing, I offer you this excerpt from Pope John Paul II's series of poems Roman Triptych. He wrote it while meditating on the Sistine Chapel - the place where the Cardinals will gather to elect a new Bishop of Rome. It is fitting that the most helpful thought for us on the conclave during this time comes from John Paul II.




It is here, beneath this wondrous Sistine profusion of color
that the Cardinals assemble -
the community responsible for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom.

They come here, to this very place.
And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision.
"In Him we live and move and have our being."
Who is He?

Behold, the creating hand of the Almighty the Ancient One,
reaching towards Adam...
In the beginning God created...
He, who sees all things...

The colors of the Sistine will then speak the word of the Lord:
Tu es Petrus
- once heard by Simon, son of John.
"To you I will give the keys of the Kingdom."
Those entrusted with the legacy of the keys gather here,
letting themselves be enfolded by the Sistine's colors,
by the vision left to us by Michelangelo -

So it was in August, and again in October,
in the memorable year of the two Conclaves,
and so it will be once more, when the time comes,
after my death.

Michelangelo's vision must then speak to them.
"Con-clave": a shared concern for the legacy of the keys,
the keys of the Kingdom.

Lo, they see themselves in the midst of the
Beginning and the End,
between the Day of Creation and the Day of Judgment...
It is granted man once to die, and thereafter, the Judgment!

Final transparency and light.
The clarity of the events -
the clarity of consciences -
During the conclave Michelangelo must teach them -
Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius.
You who see all, point to him!
He will point him out...



Joseph Previtali is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He is in his first year of formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where he studies theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.



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