I was astonished when I realised today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II. It seems like yesterday, not a decade ago!
I remember the day very clearly. I was in my first year at the seminary, but we were on our Easter break, so I was staying at the beautiful parish of St Mary Star of the Sea, West Melbourne, which was my adopted parish throughout my university years. Heck, it’s still my adopted parish when I’m in Melbourne.
I’d arranged to catch up with an acquaintance who had been in the seminary when I was at university, and who probably suspected I had a priestly vocation before I was aware of it. He had left the seminary just before I started. We never caught up, because the news of the pope’s death upset him too much.
My dear friend (now-Father) Nicholas Pearce went to the cathedral when he heard the news. Or perhaps he was staying at St Patrick’s, just as I was staying at St Mary’s. I forget. In any event, he joined the crowd massing at the cathedral doors, most of whom were Catholics of my generation, then in their late teens and early twenties. Unfortunately nobody at the cathedral had the wherewithal to throw open the doors and welcome the pilgrims inside, so the spontaneous vigil of prayer occurred in the cathedral grounds. I bet that’s a vivid memory for everyone who was there.
For my own part, since my dinner plans were cancelled, I retreated to my room, where I listened to the ABC news radio coverage. That was a mistake. A Jesuit priest (again, I forget who) was interviewed, who offered only very faint praise of the polish Pope. When the interview became focused on the semantics of obedience, and why it is perfectly legitimate to be selective in one’s obedience to the pope, I switched off. Back then I wondered what St Ignatius would say to that. Now I wonder what Pope Francis would say!
In the end, I walked over to the locked church, and kept a holy hour for the late pope in the darkened sanctuary. That might sound a bit depressing, but actually it is an experience I cherish, and praying alone in that church is never lonely. I’ve always considered it one of the greatest privileges God has given me, to have such unique access to that holy place. When I’m in Melbourne I often pray there late at night.
I remembered all this during my prayer tonight, as I kept vigil with our Lord at Gethsemane. I remembered too, Holy Thursday of 10 years ago. At that stage I was a seminarian for the Melbourne Archdiocese — I moved to Ballarat later — so I attended the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at Melbourne’s cathedral. Seminarians were free to keep watch for as long as they liked afterwards. I stayed as long as I could, until the doors were locked at midnight. I remember praying very intensely: not only for my priestly vocation, which was in its infancy, but also for our pope, whom the world knew was dying.
It all came back to me tonight. I relived not only some of the sorrow the Lord experienced in the Garden, but also my own sorrow, at the death of the pope I’d grown up with. The man whom I’d likened to my grandfathers. And now he shares in the glory of the saints, where I might go too, God willing.
Ten years ago, in early April. Ten years ago, during the Triduum (late March). Where were you?