Maine seminarian witnesses history in Rome

This story was published on April 23, 2005 on Page C8 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Seamus Griesbach was sharing a pastry and coffee with friends from Sanford earlier this week when the bells of Rome tolled, announcing a new pope.

The cafe where the 26-year-old seminarian and his guests were eating was a 20-minute walk from the Vatican balcony where the new pope would make his first appearance.

“We began walking quickly” toward St. Peter’s Square, he said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Rome.

“Priests and sisters, their long habits hiked up above their ankles, were running past us. It seemed like the whole city was running toward St. Peter’s Square. When we got there, the bells were still ringing, and there we were to see the new pope. It was pretty amazing.”

Griesbach, who is in his second year of studying for the priesthood at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, has been a witness to history the past few weeks. He has posted essays about his experience and photographs on his Web site, while juggling his seminary studies.

“I think it’s at times like these you see both the humanity and yet the supernatural guidance that has been given to the church,” he said.

The bells announced the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The man who was assuming a new name, Pope Benedict XVI, and leadership of the world’s 1 billion Catholics made his first appearance. “He is a man, not superhuman. … We all have faith that the Holy Spirit will be with him and guide him,” Griesbach said.

Although he did not express disappointment at Ratzinger’s election, Griesbach had called the Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze his “personal favorite” and described the African in a Web site posting as “so full of life and so down to earth.” Griesbach met the cardinal when Arinze dined last year with seminarians.

The oldest of three children, Griesbach grew up in Lisbon Falls and considers the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Lewiston to be his home parish. He expects to be ordained a diocesan priest there in the summer of 2007.

Griesbach plans to be back in Maine by the Fourth of July. He has been assigned this summer to serve as a parish minister intern at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in Berwick.

A graduate of St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., he made headlines as an undergraduate when he and other students walked from his hometown to Goffstown, N.H., to raise money for charity.

Just 36 hours before Pope John Paul II died, Griesbach arrived back in Rome from a visit to a section of India devastated by the December tsunami.

He and his fellow seminarians stood in line for 11 hours to file past the body. They grabbed some food and a quick nap before returning to encourage from the sidelines other pilgrims wanting to pay their respects.

“We handed out some water, but mostly just talked to people,” he wrote on his Web site. “In some ways, it looks like a war zone down there … water bottles litter the street, medics, firemen, security guards and police line the street.

“The barricades lean outward from the pressure of the crowd against them, threatening to spill into the narrow passage along the side of the street that the security/emergency personnel walk through. They hand out water and evacuate those who have medical problems – I saw at least 4 people being pulled out on stretchers. But again, the spirit in the crowd is silent patience.”

Griesbach and the other 160 or so North American Catholics returned to their studies as hundreds of thousands of people poured into the city. Classes were canceled the day of John Paul’s funeral, so the seminarians “camped out” the night before in areas set aside by police for pilgrims. The day after the funeral, Griesbach wrote that his group was not close to the pope’s coffin, but experienced a part of the Mass through the public address system and the big TV screens mounted throughout St. Peter’s Square.

“The funeral Mass was really very simple and very beautiful,” Griesbach wrote. “Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily was edifying and ended on a beautiful note, thanking God for the service of the pope. People broke into spontaneous applause any time the camera zoomed in on the coffin on the jumbo screens. But otherwise people were quiet. …

“After the Mass, a Litany of the Saints was sung, and then some of the Eastern Patriarchs and bishops incensed the coffin and carried out a rite or ritual that I’m not very clear about,” he said. “It was beautiful, though, to see them up there with all the cardinals and to hear their very Eastern-sounding chant. It further universalized the experience of church, helping to drive home the fact even more deeply that John Paul II was not just the West’s Pope, but everyone’s pope, and that the Catholic Church is not just for Europeans, but rather exists in the whole world, and in many ways it is in the ‘developing world’ that the Church is truly thriving.”

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