- Posted April 23, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Canonización de Juan Pablo II
Marie and John Paul II
The trip had been planned a year earlier, but following Marie's stroke I adamantly favored the cancellation which her doctors urged. Marie's persistent argument that we go eventually won my sympathy for the elder sister who'd traveled little, was eager to share my familiarity with Italy, and was looking forward to a papal audience for which I'd obtained tickets in advance. I did not cancel, but began the journey with much apprehension. Marie was ghastly pale, walked airports and train platforms with much difficulty, breathing heavily. Though ingrained resilience of our Depression-era childhood and World War II generation prohibited expressing complaint and we shared many laughs, I silently wondered if we hadn't seriously blundered and if I'd have to face a medical crisis in a country where I had little experience with hospitals.
Concern induced me to contact the American Bishops in Rome regarding the tickets for the general audience. I'd attended enough audiences in the past to know that long hours under the sun (or rain!) in St Peter's Square could reduce pilgrims, hardy as well as frail, to fainting or more serious seizures. I also knew that a first-aid station, a medical vehicle staffed by a doctor, was at hand in the piazza during audiences, and asked if our general tickets could be changed to ones closer to that station. The Bishops Office graciously reserved seating for us in a section for the handicapped and sick.
Always an early arriver at audiences, I was pleased that Marie and I obtained chairs in the first row of the special section, very near the platform and chair from which His Holiness John Paul II would address the crowd. Marie was ecstatic. But as the section filled, new arrivals were not seated behind us but in front, our own row of chairs moved progressively to the rear. Until our row was eventually last. The first shall be last was my characteristic reaction.
I looked frequently at my sister's face during the hours of waiting for the Pope's appearance and throughout the audience. Drawn, drained of color, she was no longer the buoyant retiree from a successful business career I'd visited a year earlier. Unmarried, childless, I'd sometimes envied her the freedom from domestic stress which occasionally torments most of us -- thought her countenance free of those scars earned in marriage and parenthood. But now the visage, if wreathed with a smile in the presence of her Pope, was etched by pain and suffering.
At the end of the audience, John Paul II rose and walked toward the section reserved for the sick. He approached the first row, began to greet and bless individually the sick and the lame, some so severely damaged that my instinct was to look away. I watched him embrace, hold to his chest children and adults, stricken souls some of whom seemed unaware of where they were -- whom our secular world would label madmen, lunatics, blathering and slobbering idiots. Whom we hide away, refuse to gaze on. John Paul II cradled them in his arms.
"He's going to come to each of us, bless us all," Marie said.
"No way," I answered. "The first few rows, maybe. But then he'll stop, never get back here to where we are."
"He's going to bless us all," Marie insisted.
I watched the white-robed figure move resolutely through the ranks, touched by his compassion for maimed brothers and sisters in Christ. And felt I shouldn't be in their midst, hale and fit, a fraud among those meriting presence. I confided this to Marie. "But you have to be here, or I couldn't be," she said. It had been explained at the American Bishops Office that anyone admitted to the section for the sick had to be accompanied by a caretaker.
The Pope was in the row ahead of us, near enough to reach out and touch. I watched with awe his ministering caresses and heard the gentle words -- in many languages -- lovingly bestowed on the crippled, the blinded, those brain-damaged or physically deformed. Awed that he somehow broke through their fierce isolation, effected a positive change in their faces.
And then he was before us.
I took his extended hand, realized I was foolishly speaking imperfect Italian rather than English to acknowledge his blessing. He moved to Marie, who sat very still, her eyes locked to his. John Paul II placed his hand atop her head, whispered a prayer. The sustained moment seemed an eternity. Marie to me looked bathed in radiant light. She was to swear ever after that the encounter with her Pope, no matter the second stroke and heart surgery which came much later, was what gave her victory over affliction and granted an auxiliary 16 years of pleasure in life.
If lucky, one has looked on a person or two whom he knows as sainted, even though Rome will never hear of him or her. I hold a few such, never celebrated or canonized, close to my heart. But even if unable to attend the ceremonies in Rome this April, or unable that September twenty-eight years ago to foresee his official elevation to sainthood in my lifetime, Marie and I knew a saint when we saw one. Once we'd left St Peter's Square and returned to the convent-pensione where we lodged, a nun said she'd seen us receive the blessing and asked how it made me feel.
"His Holiness looked at me as if I were the only person on the face of the earth. The world fell away," I answered.
"He makes everyone feel that way," she replied.