Funeral of Pope John Paul II

Bishop Seraphim : Report
Funeral of Pope John Paul II
Vatican City, Rome
6-9 April, 2005

Upon learning of the death of Pope John Paul II on Saturday, 2 April, Metropolitan Herman immediately sent a message of condolence to the Vatican.

Sent by His Beatitude Metropolitan Herman, the Priest Alexander Rentel and I departed New York by USAir on Wednesday, 6 April, 2005, for the Funeral Service of Bishop John Paul II, Pope of Rome. We travelled from LaGuardia aeroport in New York, via Philadephia, Pennsylvania.

On 7 April, we were met in Rome at our exit from customs by a Vatican secretary (as well as by Monsignor Fortino), who took us directly to the Aurelia Residence on Via Aurelia Antica. This is an accommodation somewhat to the west of the Vatican, not far from the Russian Embassy, and in a district of many hotels, including the adjoining Crowne Plaza. As we learned, all of the “fraternal delegates” would be accommodated in this building, which was kept quite secure at all times. The accommodation was somewhat “older”, but it was very accommodating, adequate, and the food was both plentiful and good. All was served in a manner befitting the nature of those participating as guests of the Vatican. Later in the afternoon, Monsignor Fortino escorted Father Alexander and me to Saint Peter’s Basilica, where we had a few moments to view and to pray for the deceased pope, resting there in state. Inside Saint Peter’s Basilica, crowds of people in unprecedented numbers were passing by the departed pope’s bier. Therefore, it had been arranged that there be opportunities for clergy, bishops, and Heads-of-State, as guests of the Vatican, separately (to one side of the body, opposite to the steadily processing queue), to pay their respects at the bier, where the pope’s body lay in view. On our exiting, we encountered Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople just as he was approaching the bier, and we greeted him and his entourage. We returned to the Aurelia Residence through very heavy and congested traffic. In the evening, at the residence, there was a dinner hosted by Cardinal Kasper. Also present at the dinner were Abouna Pavlos, the Patriarch of Ethiopia ; the Patriarch of the Assyrians (who came from the USA) ; Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, Greece ; Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Albania ; Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, Russia ; Metropolitan Daniel of Iasi, Romania ; Metropolitan Daniel of Georgia ; and other bishops and clergy from the Ethiopian, Assyrian, Polish, Finnish, Slovak, Cypriot, Serbian, Romanian, Georgian, Greek, and Jerusalem Churches. At this dinner, I had the opportunity to greet and exchange words with Patriarch Bartholomew, with Archbishop Anastasios, and with Metropolitan Kirill.

By Friday morning, 8 April, all the official representatives of the Orthodox Churches (including the Coptic Church) had arrived, and we were all loaded into 3 buses, and taken to the Vatican, with a police escort. Entering Saint Peter’s Basilica by means of a side door, we assembled in the Saint John Chrysostom Chapel, and we were then escorted to our places on the “chancel” before Saint Peter’s Basilica. The funeral was celebrated out-of-doors, in the square, before an immense crowd of people from around the world. Flags of numerous nations were being waved with some energy in the crowd. It was estimated that up to 3 or 4 million people had assembled. They were massed in the square and the adjoining streets (or at various other sites throughout Rome so as to participate by telecast), in order to participate in this funeral. It was said that 2 ½ million Poles had arrived, besides all others. The weather was partly sunny, but mostly cloudy, and a little cool, which made it easier on all concerned. Also present were the leaders of various Protestant communions, representatives of all the non-Christian religious groups with whom the Vatican has dialogue, and Heads-of-State of a large number of countries with whom the Vatican has diplomatic relations. These and all of us official representatives were ranged facing each other across the “chancel”. This arrangement was in accordance with protocol. The Christian delegates sat on chairs on the same side as a large number of Roman Catholic bishops, and the non-Christian delegates sat on the other side, with the civil delegations, and adjacent to the statue of the Apostle Paul. The last of the political leaders to be seated was President Bush of the USA, who was nevertheless placed in the second row — perhaps because he is not a Roman Catholic leader.

Just at 1000 hrs, the procession of the entry of the cardinals began from the basilica, and more than 100 cardinals venerated the altar and assumed their places in chairs on rising steps behind it. Last came the body of Pope John Paul II, in a closed cypress box which was carried by his official chair-carriers. According to Roman custom, while the closed coffin was carried to its place before the altar, in the midst of the chancel, on a low bier, there was strong and sustained applause from the people. It was this applause, and occasional shouts from the people, that were the only signs of emotion perceptible by those of us on the “chancel”, and at quite a distance from any others. It was somewhat contradictory, perhaps touching, that some persons were, on several occasions during the service, shouting “viva il papa” (may the pope live), perhaps not knowing what else to say. The funeral service began in accordance with the usual ritual, which was provided to us in a special service-book. This book included the preparatory rites, and the burial rites, neither of which was seen by the public. Cardinal Ratzinger, Dean of the College of Cardinals, presided over the service. After the Gospel was read, it was he who gave the sermon. Singing and organ accompaniment were provided by the basilica’s choir and organist, both of which were transmitted by a public-address system from within the basilica. The singing was beautiful and well-presented, save for some flatness on the part of the singers. The sermon was well-received by the attenders, who interrupted periodically with sustained applause. At the appropriate moment, a very large number of priests and deacons, carrying ciboria, took Holy Communion to the multitudes. The distribution took a long time, understandably. At the conclusion of the eucharistic service, the cardinals assembled on either side of the low bier for the final prayers. The Latin service concluded with the Litany of the Saints, which included various saints of Rome, including some of the more recent saints who had been canonised during the time of Pope John Paul II. Added to this service was a Trisagion service, chanted in Greek (and concluded in Arabic), led by the Greek-Catholic and Ukrainian-Catholic primates present. In the media reporting, there was some mis-reporting that this Trisagion service was offered by the Orthodox. However, none of the Orthodox present did other than stand by as witnesses.

At the conclusion of the service, the coffin was again raised on the shoulders of the bearers, and borne around the other side of the altar, counter-clockwise, and up to the doors of the basilica. Before being taken into the basilica, the coffin was turned again to face the people, and raised at the head, towards them. There was very strong and sustained applause. There was waving of national flags, and also of the banners which proclaimed santo subito (a saint immediately), and other such sentiments. In due course, the bearers turned about again, and bore the coffin into the basilica, following after the cardinals (who had previously entered), who were to inter the deceased pope in the crypt. It was reported later that the crypt was kept closed for some days afterwards, in order to encourage the dispersion of the almost impossibly large number of people who had arrived in Rome. Immediately, there began a novena of masses (that is, 9 days of memorial eucharistic services for the defunct pope). At the conclusion of this novena, on 18 April, there would begin the conclave of the cardinal-electors who would elect the successor.

After all the services were completed, all the “fraternal delegates” were led to their buses, and returned to the Residence Aurelia, with police escort. We were then given dinner, after which I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Archbishop Christodoulos. Later, there was a standing greeting-reception given by Cardinal Ratzinger, who was introduced to the delegates by Cardinal Kasper. Immediately upon greeting him, Patriarch Bartholomew left for his flight to Istanbul. Some others also began to leave, but the majority were to leave later. Soon after this reception, Father Alexander Rentel and I met with Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and Durres, in response to his kind invitation. During the course of 2 hours, the Archbishop first explained to us the nature of the serious difficulties caused by the public and political writings of a certain cleric who lived in Canada, and we agreed on a manner of proceeding in order to resolve the painful situation. We then engaged in an extended reflection on the subject of missionary work, its nature and purpose, the value of Orthodox witness to those outside her, and a recounting of the various difficulties faced by Albania, in particular, in restoring normal ecclesiastical life. After the conclusion of this heartening meeting, we all retired to the lower floor for supper. There was not a large number at supper, since many bishops had taken advantage of the fact that the streets had been opened from 1800 hrs, in order to attend services in various churches, or to visit. At the conclusion of supper, along with many warm farewells, we retired to our rooms to prepare for our morning departure.

At the time of this departure, at 0800 hrs on Saturday, 9 April, we were escorted to the airport along with the Assyrian Patriarch. We boarded our aircraft, which had a late departure due to very heavy traffic, and we returned uneventfully to Philadelphia. Father Rentel flew on to New York, and I waited several hours longer to depart to Ottawa, where I arrived safely, thanks be to God, at midnight on Saturday.