An overwhelming week packed with emotions – not only sadness, grief, and mourning, but also joy, hope and a profound appreciation for the Holy Father – followed the death of John Paul II on April 2. Being in Rome as the historic events unfolded day by day leading to his funeral April 8 was an experience that I will cherish for a lifetime. It is a blessing that I will always be grateful for and remember humbly for the rest of my life.
As the director of the University of St. Thomas’ Bernardi Campus in Rome for the last two years, I have never seen the city so crowded. Rivers of people flooded the streets and boulevards in the area leading to St. Peter’s Square and to the Basilica to pay their respects to this much-loved leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
As for the group of students who were enrolled in the St. Thomas Catholic Studies spring semester in Rome, little did they know that their four months in the Eternal City would be not only a remarkable study abroad experience of living in and studying in another culture. It would also allow them to take a front row seat to history and witness an amazing series of events.
Joining with thousands of other people – pilgrims, tourists, media and locals – who gathered at St. Peter’s Square, my students and I stood patiently in the line of mourners. Some of us waited for as short a time as two or three hours – and others for as long as 10 to 14 hours – to either file past the body of the late pontiff where he lay in state in St. Peter’s Basilica or to be there for the funeral service.
What touched me the most as I was standing in line among the sea of people waiting to pay our respects to the Holy Father was the vast diversity. They were people from all over the world – people of different religions and languages, of different faiths and backgrounds, from all different walks of life – with flags waving for a historic event. All of us were united in one place and for a great cause, much like the Holy Father himself had preached throughout his life for people across the globe to come together and be united in peace. I believe he would have been proud of this diversity.
The outpouring of love and affection of these people that had been displayed from every corner of the world was truly the proof of one man’s strong will and power and a testament to his ability to make a difference in our world. He had such a huge impact on our humanity. In one of the greatest religious gatherings in modern times, what I witnessed was a testimony of John Paul II’s special gift of being able to reach out to all and join them together in an atmosphere of reflection, charity, prayers, chants and various hymns. It was a truly remarkable way of honoring this great man of grace. He was a moral and spiritual leader of the highest degree. He was different from any of the other popes that had preceded him.
Personally, I feel very blessed to have met the Holy Father in person, twice in the fall semester of 2004, and I never will forget those few seconds as I knelt before him to kiss his ring and receive his blessing. I was truly struck and taken by his grace, love and holiness.
As we all witnessed the Holy Father’s enormous magnetism towards the faithful around the world and how remarkable a man he was, I reflected on how much good would result if people from all over the globe would join forces and gather in solidarity with one another. What if they spread the Holy Father’s message of kindness, hope, peace, and reconciliation that he championed?
What an extraordinary life this was. One man was able to speak to the heart of all humanity and inspire them as well as many generations to come.
Thanos Zyngas, a native of Cyprus, has worked at St. Thomas since 1996. He has a bachelor’s and master’s from Ohio University.