In Your Midst

Days of Extraordinary Grace
The Death of Pope John Paul II & the Election of Pope Benedict XVI

July 2005

This Spring we were privileged to experience an unforgettable moment in the history of our Church.  The following "journal" documents those days of extraordinary grace at St. James Cathedral.

    Friday, April 1. On Friday of the Easter Octave, the Holy Father’s health took a sudden turn for the worse. He made the decision not to return to the hospital, but to remain in his rooms at the Vatican. Reporters from Seattle’s major television stations were at Cathedral throughout the day, as we all waited for word of the Pope’s condition.

    Father Ryan offered the 5:30pm Mass for the Holy Father, commenting: “No other Pope in history ‘went about’ more than he did—as he covered the face of the earth and reached into every facet of the human family. But in these last years and these last days he has ‘stretched out his hands’ on the cross of a diminishing and debilitating illness and has ceased in any sense to be the master of his life or his destiny. In doing so, he has given us—given the Church and the entire human family—his final gift. He not only showed us how to live; he is showing us how to die.”

    A place of prayer was established near the Archbishop’s chair, and the Cathedral remained open until midnight. All evening and into the night hours, the faithful kept a candlelight vigil for the Holy Father.

Candlelight vigil on the evening of April 2.

    Saturday, April 2. Just before noon, we received word of the Pope’s death. The great bell in the Cathedral’s south tower was tolled for a quarter of an hour, and black and purple bunting was hung from the west façade. Immediately, people began streaming into the Cathedral. At the beginning of each hour, we prayed one of the luminous mysteries of the rosary, mysteries Pope John Paul II himself added to the rosary in 2002.

    The Vigil Mass at 5:30pm was offered for the Holy Father. More than a thousand people packed the Cathedral for this beautiful Mass, which concluded with a candlelight vigil at the place of prayer, with its image of Our Lady of Czestochowa, painted by parishioner Georgetta Gancarz.

    Father Ryan captured the mood of the moment in his homily: “Our Church stands at a new and uncertain moment as we mourn the loss of an extraordinary Pope, a Pope who for more than a generation has defined the papacy, a Pope who in many ways has been larger than life. He became the conscience of both Church and world… calling people to a higher and a deeper morality, calling all of us to be our best selves, our most Christian selves: to free the oppressed, to care for the poor, to feed the hungry, to defend human life and protect human dignity at every moment and every stage, to work for peace. My friends, we do stand at a new and uncertain moment as a Church but we do not stand alone. The same Lord who inspired the earliest Christian believers to the heights of holiness and who elicited from fearful, doubting Thomas a dazzling act of faith is with us now and will be with us until the end of time. We are not alone.”

    Again, the Cathedral remained open until Midnight. All night, people waited in line to pray at the place of prayer and inscribe a message in the Book of Intentions. This book grew into an extraordinary testament of love, with messages in dozens of different languages, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. One message read: “You watched over us on earth, and I know you will continue to do so from your new home in Heaven. You truly were amongst us as one who serves, always calling us to something greater than ourselves.”

    “I know no other Pope,” another wrote. “You were elected the year I was born. With your passing one of my life certainties is shaken. The choir of angels be with you in the transition from death to life. I love you as I loved my grandfather. Rest in peace!”

    On Sunday, April 3, Masses were again offered in remembrance of the Holy Father, and the Cathedral was filled to capacity throughout the day. The Sunday evening Mass ended memorably, with the Cathedral choir singing Gorecki’s Totus Tuus, a setting of the motto of Pope John Paul II: “O Mary, I am entirely yours!” The momentum continued through Monday, April 3, when Archbishop Brunett offered the 12:10pm Mass in memory of the Holy Father, with some 1,200 in attendance.

The Book of Intentions.

    Friday, April 8. The Holy Father lay in state in St. Peter’s for several days before the Funeral Mass. A million people lined the streets of Rome to pay their respects, and millions more experienced these unforgettable days on television. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offered the Funeral Mass in the windswept St. Peter’s Square, concluding his homily with the words: “None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing urbi et orbi. 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. Yes, bless us, Holy Father.”

    In Seattle, Archbishop Brunett offered a last memorial Mass for the Holy Father at 12:10pm. Again the Cathedral was filled to capacity, and a festival choir of more than a hundred sang Duruflé’s magnificent Requiem. We were privileged to welcome special guests—Governor Christine Gregoire, Senator Maria Cantwell, various members of the Diplomatic Corps, and representatives of major world religions, including Rabbi Daniel Wiener of Temple de Hirsch Sinai and Jamal Rahman, a Muslim/Sufi minister. Archbishop Brunett commented: “The love that people are expressing for Pope John Paul II is not surprising. He was not a red or a blue pope. He was neither conservative nor liberal. He was a witness to our faith, which rises above labels and calls each of us beyond liberal and conservative. May he rest in peace.”

    In the evening, an ecumenical prayer honored the Holy Father with song and candlelight. Dr. Sandy Brown, Executive Director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, offered the prayer: “Holy God, Lord of life, creator of all. We thank you for the life of Pope John Paul II. We thank you for his ministry, for the example of his deep devotion, for the passion of his social witness, for his patience through suffering, and for the power of his witness of peace.”

    Sunday, April 10. While the Church continued to mourn the death of the Holy Father, our thoughts inevitably turned towards the future and the coming Conclave, scheduled to begin on April 18. At St. James we began a novena for the gifts of the Holy Spirit on the Church and on the world.

    Sunday, April 17. As dawn of April 18 broke in Rome, we kept vigil until midnight with prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Each hour we meditated on the words of John Paul II in Roman Triptych, his last poem: “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./And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision… ”

Yellow and white banners fly from the Cathedral's towers at the election of Benedict XVI.

    Tuesday, April 19. White smoke! Early on Tuesday morning we were stunned to hear the news: after only four ballots, white smoke was pouring from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. In Rome, tens of thousands thronged into St. Peter’s Square to await the appearance of the new Holy Father. In Seattle, a celebratory six-bell peal rang from the Cathedral’s south tower and yellow and white banners flew. And all over the world, we waited in suspense to hear the name of the man the Cardinals had elected.

    Later that day, at a special Mass of thanksgiving, Father Ryan recalled this surreal, unforgettable moment: “’We have a Pope!’ Those words, solemnly proclaimed from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica barely two-and-a-half hours ago must still be echoing… around the world. They echo in our minds and memories, too, and I suspect they will for a long time. ‘We have a Pope!’ Many of us sat on the edge of our chairs waiting for those words, holding our breath and saying our prayers and then we heard them, ‘We have a Pope!’ More momentous still were the words that followed those: ‘Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, Joseph Ratzinger.’ I suspect we will long remember that moment!

    “We must unite in the most fervent prayer for our new Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, as he steps into the shoes of the fisherman. May he lead us in the ways of Christ and help us make the gospel of Christ even more believable and compelling in a troubled and divided world, a troubled and divided Church!”

    On April 20, Pope Benedict XVI commented on our shared experience of these days: “The death of the Holy Father John Paul II and the days that followed have been an extraordinary period of grace for the Church and for the whole world. Deep sorrow at his departure and the sense of emptiness that it left in everyone have been tempered by the action of the Risen Christ, which was manifested… in the unanimous wave of faith, love and spiritual solidarity that culminated in his solemn funeral Mass. We can say it: John Paul II’s funeral was a truly extraordinary experience in which, in a certain way, we glimpsed the power of God.”

    At the Mass marking the solemn inauguration of his pontificate on Sunday, April 24, Pope Benedict XVI again reflected on the meaning of this intense experience of death, life, grace: “Yes, the Church is alive— this is the wonderful experience of these days... And the Church is young. She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way towards the future. The Church is alive and we are seeing it... The Church is alive—she is alive because Christ is alive, because he is truly risen.”

Visit the John Paul II Album
Read Father Ryan's homilies in their entirety here

Maria Laughlin is the Office Manager and Archivist at St. James Cathedral.

Other articles in the July 2005 issue:

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