Saturday evening in Rome at Circus Maximus, an estimated 200,000 pilgrims from around the world gathered to remember, pray and celebrate the life of Pope John Paul II. It was a homecoming of sorts, a mini World Youth Day that included young people and veterans of WYD who are now in their 40's and 50's. Of course, Polish flags were predominant throughout the celebration, which included moving testimonials from those close to JPII (his press secretary, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls and his personal secretary, now Cardinal of Krakow Stanislaw Dziwisz).
Another moving tribute came from Parkinson's survivor Sr. Marie-Simon Pierre Normand, the miracle cure of her sickness attributed to the late Pontiff. She spoke of praying the luminous mysteries with her religious community and the profound impact JPII had on her own life.
The luminous mysteries were prayed with each decade offered for a special intention: 1) Youth 2) Family 3) Pronouncing the Gospel to all peoples 4) The gift of hope and peace among peoples 5) The Church
Each mystery included a live link from a different location around the world: Poland, Tanzania, Lebanon, Mexico City, Portugal.
The final speaker of the evening was the current Vicar of Christ, Pope Benedict XVI, joining via video screen, praying with pilgrims and offering his own reflections which included the powerful paragraph that follows:
In his extraordinary energy of love for humanity he loved, with a kind and tender love, all those "wounded by life" as he called the poor, the sick, the nameless, and those excluded - but he had a particular love for the youth. His calls for the World Youth Days had the purpose of making youth into the protagonists of their own future, becoming builders of history. The youth, he said, are the wealth of the Church and of society. He invited them to prepare for the big choices to be made, to look ahead with confidence, trusting in their own abilities and following Christ and the Gospel...
..."The remembrance of our beloved pontiff, prophet of hope, should not mean a return to the past for us, but let us make the most of his human and spiritual heritage; let it be an impetus to look forward. May the words that he wrote in his apostolic letter "Novo millenio ineunte" from the great Jubilee Year of 2000 resound in our hearts: "Let us go forward in hope! A new millennium is opening before the Church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ. The Son of God...is at work even today: we need discerning eyes to see this and, above all, a generous heart to become the instruments of his work."
With music, laughter, prayer and significant involvement from young people and his beloved successor Pope Benedict XVI, you could almost see PJPII looking down and smiling in approval. Perhaps a 2nd miracle is the fact that the day that had been completely overcast held up with just a scant few drops throughout the evening.
So now the prayer continues in the night. As the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims dispersed into the streets, they will continue what they are calling the "White Night" here in Rome, with 8 churches in the city centre open all night for prayer and reflection. The youth of Rome will serve as hosts for the night.
That said, trying to get back to our home base this evening proved to be quite the challenge. With St. Peter's Square closed till 5:30 a.m., pilgrims have essentially "camped" out for the night with sleeping bags and ground sheets a la World Youth Days so it's pretty much a bottleneck anywhere close to the square.
It's after 1 a.m. Rome time and the crowds are singing, dancing, chatting and praying together. Don't anticipate anyone will get much sleep - our wake up call comes in 2.5 hrs. to begin what should be an historic day in the eternal city.