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Vi ho cercato. Adesso voi siete venuti da me. E vi ringrazio.
I sought you. Now you have come to me. And for this I thank you.

“He was as alone as a man can be,” the Polish journalist Jerzy Turowicz remarked of John Paul II at the moment of his election. At his death on April 2, 2005, between the thousands packed into St. Peter’s Square, and the group of doctors, nuns, priests, and bishops in his bedroom, John Paul ended his papacy as far from alone as one can be. While this certainly brought him comfort“he had chosen to stay in his room rather than die in the hospital“it also brought comfort, joy, and faith to those of us in the piazza.

On April 1, soon after learning the Pope was seriously ill, my friends and I went to St. Peter’s Square, which was more crowded than it had been on Easter Sunday. I initially felt an overpowering sense of history, that I would soon be witnessing a significant global event. When we arrived, a group of Cardinals congregated on the steps of the Basilica led the crowd of faithful in saying the rosary’s Luminous Mysteries, promulgated by John Paul several years earlier.

As the day went on, grown men were crying, priests were hugging, groups of faithful praying the rosary covered the square, and everyone was reflective and prayerful. Whether they were silently praying or singing in a group, everyone’s gaze was directed at the papal apartment, its light shining above the dark Piazza. As if we were already mourning his passing, flowers, candles, and pictures of John Paul occupied every available surface. I think all of us felt a little guilty when we went home that night, as if we were leaving him alone.

The following day, we returned to St. Peter’s surprised but thankful that the Holy Father had made it to morning. We had since learned of his words to the faithful outside. His knowledge of our presence seemed to make my prayers more significant. By this time, reporters and photographers from seemingly every news outlet in the world had descended on the square. While their presence distracted us at times, I think everyone felt blessed to be the face of the Church to the watching world.

Americans studying in or visiting the Eternal City met one another, becoming friends through the unspoken realization that each was witnessing a momentous event in the Church and in their lives. Throughout the day, organized prayer was interspersed with conversation as everyone waited, incredulously, for the inevitable. Anytime someone began talking loudly, several others asked him to be quiet.

That evening, a group of cardinals again led the faithful in the rosary. After the rosary, all the cardinals retreated into St. Peter’s, except one. Cardinal Giovanni Baptista remained, announcing that the Holy Father had passed away. Though I spoke no Italian, I recognized him saying that John Paul had gone to the house of his Father. Instantly, everyone was crying. Adults were sobbing, and perfect strangers were hugging and leaning on one another. The time we spent in the square did not dampen our reaction to him being truly gone. I did not even hear the large bells tolling.

Thousands of Catholics from many different countries and walks of life became one in sorrow and joy at their Holy Father’s passing. Italian teenagers knelt prayed next to elderly nuns in full habit; Vatican prelates and Roman citizens surrounded American seminarians and students. In a country where so many seemed to show irreverence or indifference to their faith tradition, a crowd of thousands fell on its knees and struggled to sing the Salve Regina beneath the Mater Ecclesiae mosaic. When we finished, the entire square was silent, save for the sounds of people sobbing. We then realized that the light in the papal apartment had been extinguished at the time of his death.

I imagine I was not the only one who, upon reflecting on his passing, seemed sure of John Paul’s glorification and my own failings in contrast. It was an awesome gathering of thousands, all praying and meditating in a way they likely never would again. I also realized that we would all soon be witnessing the election of the next Pope.

As I went to sleep early that morning, I was concerned for the future of the Church. But I was mostly thankful“thankful for being near the Pope at his death, and thankful for witnessing the Catholic Church that night in St. Peter’s Square. As the only Pope I had ever known, John Paul was the Catholic Church to me, and countless other young people. But on April 2, after he died, I saw the Catholic Church, and that I loved it and was blessed to be one of its own. And I saw that, regardless of who next answered the Lord’s call, it would continue to be the Church I now loved more than ever.

John O’Herron is a law clerk for the Honorable Cynthia D. Kinser on the Supreme Court of Virginia. The views expressed are his own. He was in Rome for a semester of study with Christendom College.

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