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VATICAN CITY — When Pope John Paul II was alive he traveled the world to meet his flock. In the week leading up to the pope’s April 8 funeral, his flock traveled to him to say their final good-byes.
“I do not know how to say it but I felt I had to come to say good-bye to such [a] great pope,” said Mariusz Czescyk, a teenager from Warsaw who came with several dozen young people in order to “give final greetings to such a holy, holy man.”
From April 4-7, pilgrims lined the streets of Rome for a chance to enter St. Peter’s Basilica where the body of Pope John Paul II lay, the ocean of mourners stretching out for three miles at its longest point. Some lit candles, with many makeshift shrines popping up wherever there was an open area. Many came waving their country’s flags or wearing their country’s traditional clothing. Some cried; others sang religious songs.
Packed together so tightly the outside air itself was stagnant, they waited.
Assisting the long line of mourners was an army of volunteers, brightly vested in orange who answered questions and handed out water to the pilgrims as they walked by. Sonia Pasquinelli, a medical student studying in Rome, was among the volunteers.
According to Pasquinelli, medical students were encouraged to volunteer because of their medical training, “to keep people as healthy as possible while standing in the sun and not being able to move.”
“The situation was near critical” Wednesday, April 6 she said, because of the “incredible number” of pilgrims.
“The line is so long, and moves so slowly, and yet people are drawn to come,” she said. “It’s really quite unbelievable.”
Oscar and America Paniagua, a married couple from Washington D.C., were among those who went to see the pontiff on that day. For more than 12 hours they stood in the blaring sun before entering the basilica. Although they only got to see the pontiff for a few brief moments — according to the Vatican an average 350 pilgrims per minute entered the basilica — they were awestruck by the experience.
“We have had a very special time,” said Oscar Paniagua.
“Pope John Paul II was a great example of unity, of love and of valor — especially in his later years,” continued his wife. “We consider ourselves very fortunate to be here today.”
For Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College — a Catholic liberal arts college in Virginia, and his wife Catherine, coming to say goodbye to the pontiff was something they had promised themselves 25 years ago.
“We were in the square 27 years ago when he was first elected,” explained Timothy O’Donnell. “[We knew that] no matter where in the world we were, we would come back when he’d be buried.”
“This is our pope,” stressed Catherine O’Donnell.
However, the O’Donnells were “stunned” by the amount of mourners who journeyed to the Vatican.
“It really gives a sense of the universality of the Church,” she said.
Rogelio DeAn, a 19-year-old from Cuba, was also impressed with the number of countries represented among the mourners.
Proudly waving a Cuban flag, DeAn said he happened to be in Italy when news of the pope’s death reached him. According to DeAn, he knew he had to attend the funeral.
“Imagine a Cuban being able to be in Rome at such a monumental time,” he exclaimed. “How could I not be here to say goodbye to my pope!”