September 24, 2019
Essay

Passing of John Paul II a big moment in history

The 3:45 a.m. alarm hit hard Friday, but I was out of bed and downstairs a few minutes later, just in time to watch the start of the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

I had thought for several days about whether I could wake up so early for something that I really didn’t consider part of my life.

As a 30-year-old Jewish woman, I was not exactly close to this pope in faith or age. I didn’t agree with a lot of what he had to say about social issues.

And I didn’t know a lot about this pope until Vatican officials announced that he had gone into septic shock last Thursday.

But since then, I have found myself drawn to the coverage of the pope’s illness and death – to the point of feeling guilty for watching five minutes of a soap opera instead of a cable news channel last week as news spread of his worsening condition.

I’ve inhaled Associated Press news stories about the pope’s tailor, reaction from this pope’s school friends in Poland and the numbers that have crowded into the massive piazza and St. Peter’s Basilica. I wondered if the man who tried to assassinate the pope in 1981 – and who was later forgiven by John Paul II – would be included in the mourning process.

As involved and interested as I had gotten, I just had to watch the funeral even if it meant an early morning for me.

My fascination with the events of the last week have made me realize I’m a big-moment-in-history kind of person. I was glued to the TV the night Princess Diana died. In college I was labeled a geek for hogging the TV in the student lounge when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993. I watched last month’s congressional testimony about steroids in baseball all day – and not just the famous baseball player part.

But there were reasons why I was interested in those events. Diana’s story was like a fairy tale. I was living in New York City at the time of the trade center bombing. And I’m a baseball fan.

Yet there seemed no reasonable explanation for why I wanted so badly to watch the pope’s funeral other than to see all the dignitaries.

Listening to the homily, I found that it all started to make sense. Like me, John Paul was a big-moment-in-history kind of person, too.

As a young student, he studied in a clandestine seminary in Poland, according to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s remarks, to escape the encroaching Nazis.

In the past week I’ve been hearing about the pope’s role in the late 1970s in helping to bring about the eventual fall of communism in Poland.

After nearly dying in the attempt on his life, he went to his would-be assassin and forgave him. He recently took President Bush to task for the war in Iraq.

And most touching to me, he visited Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, one of the most sacred sites in Judaism, in 2000. In 1998 the pope released an apology for the Vatican’s lack of action during the Holocaust – more than 50 years too late, but an apology nonetheless.

I was reminded of that at around 6:15 a.m. Friday. Taking a funeral break, I took out my garbage. As I was walking back in, I heard chanting that sounded vaguely similar to the tunes I’ve heard in synagogue. When I got back in front of the TV, I saw that the music wasn’t coming from rabbis but from Eastern priests who were chanting in Greek.

I’ve also felt a strong connection to the coverage because of all the glimpses we’ve had of St. Peter’s, both the basilica and the plaza where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered Friday.

On a trip to Italy with my sister in 2001, I had a chance to spend time in St. Peter’s, the grandeur of which surely awes anyone, regardless of religion. The pope’s body was laid out on a bier in front of the canopy sculpted by Baroque artist Bernini, the creator of some of my favorite works of art. The pope was finally laid to rest in a grotto that I once had a chance to tour.

Next up, the election of the new pope. I’m sure I’ll be in front of the TV for that, too, wondering if Ratzinger is the choice or whether that cardinal from Africa has a chance to be elected. It’s surely another big moment.

Jessica Bloch is a BDN sportswriter. She also writes the SingleFile column.


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