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Local priest recounts passing of Pope John Paul I

By Neil W. McCabe
Posted: 10/10/2008

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Father Joseph L. Curran of Sacred Heart Parish in Watertown poses with memorabilia of Pope John Paul I he has collected over the years. Pilot photo/ Neil W. McCabe


On the last day of Pope John Paul I’s life, the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Watertown was leading a group of 35 pilgrims to Rome from St. Mary Parish in Beverly.

It was Father Joseph L. Curran’s second trip to Rome and on the morning of Sept. 28, 1978, he sat with his group for what was to be the pope’s last audience.

Father Curran said the pope’s mood was buoyant during the audience and the mood was joyous. “He couldn’t have been more gracious.”

The next morning the group was scheduled for a tour of the Sistine Chapel. As he got ready in his hotel room, Father Curran heard on the radio that the pope had died. “I thought to myself they were reading the last month’s news -- like they had just read the wrong story.”

Once he realized it was not a mistake, the priest said he quickly gathered his pilgrims and rushed to Vatican City before it was locked up, including all of the parts of St. Peter’s and the museums, which is what he believed would be the protocol.

When they arrived at the Sistine Chapel, the workers were already making preparations for the funeral and for the conclave. Father Curran said he was surprised to find the chapel was not closed.

By the time the tour ended it was noon. Father Curran realized he had spent all of his lire, the Italian currency, so he sent his charges to lunch while he went to the Vatican Bank to exchange his dollars.

As he stood in line, the priest said he overheard a conversation between the man behind him, who had four cameras around his neck, and a friend. The photographer’s friend had rushed into the bank and was cajoling him: “Let’s go. Let’s go. They are opening and closing the gates and I can’t wait. I am not going to miss this. Come with me now!”

The two men bolted out of the bank and ran across St. Peter’s Square to St. Anne’s Gate.

Curious, Father Curran said he hurried to follow them.

At the locked gate, the traditional business entrance to Vatican City, stood a group of Swiss Guards. The sergeant of the guard came out and informed the sentries that because the pope’s death certificate had not yet been signed, official mourning observances could not yet begin. The gates were reopened.

Despite the commotion and confusion, Father Curran said he was able to signal members of his group and gather them at the gate. From there, he led them to the doorway that he saw the photographer and his friend enter. A line was forming.

Just as they arrived, the Italian prime minister was coming out of the door, he said. The door led to the viewing of the pope’s body and the prime minister had been brought in ahead of the public as a courtesy, he said.

The Swiss Guards at the door allowed Father Curran’s pilgrims in with one of the first groups of 50-at-a-time, he said. The pilgrims started at the ground and climbed up the many flights of stairs to the fourth floor and to the Clementine Hall, a room where some papal audiences are held, he said.

The pontiff was dressed in red vestments and lying on a table with a velvet covering and his hands were placed together as if in prayer, Father Curran said.

“We could see that everything was just being thrown together. While we were there, the Swiss Guards rushed in to take their posts and two nuns ran in to take their place at the two kneelers and quickly knelt in prayer next to the body,” he said.

Father Curran and his pilgrims were actually participating in the second phase of the pope’s burial process, which in her book, “The Death of the Popes,” Wendy J. Reardon describes as the semi-private visitation in the residences, mostly by family and dignitaries. This phase follows the formal viewing of the pope by the cardinals in the death chamber. The third phase is the public viewing and funeral Masses and the fourth is the actual internment.

Father Curran said he felt the strong sense that the Vatican officials intentionally allowed visitors inside so soon after the pope’s death. “They were trying to say to us: ‘This is how we found him.’ They had not shaved his face, there was no makeup and his shoes were nailed to a board attached to the table to keep his feet from falling to the side.”

The pilgrims were told they could not stop as they passed the body, he said. “I told everyone to stay close to the wall as we went across the room to take as much time as possible.”

The next day, when the general public was allowed the view the body, the pope’s appearance was much more appropriate, he said.

The exit from the room was one straight stairway going down four stories.

“It was like going down a shoot. It must have been built as an escape route. There were no instructions, no signs -- just down and out. When we got to the bottom we found ourselves in the back of Vatican City,” he said.

Father Curran said he often thinks about his moment as a witness to history. In 1983, he wrote and produced a miniature book “A Brief Reign,” about the pontificate and its long-lasting effect on the Church. The book, which is less than two inches tall, uses postage stamps of the pontiff as full-page illustrations.

Over the years he has acquired a number of items from the 33 days of Pope John Paul I’s papacy. Perhaps the most valuable piece consists of three perfectly struck papers from the official seal of the three popes of 1978. The punches, framed together, were a gift to the priest by the papal heraldry designer who developed the coat of arms in collaboration with each pope on the morning after his election.

He has also acquired Vatican stamps and coins from that short era, although the official coins were only produced after the death of Pope John Paul I at the insistence of Pope John Paul II because he did not want collectors to have a gap in their papal coin collections.

When a pope is buried, a paper with a list of his achievements and a bag of coins from his reign with his likeness are buried with him. But, there are no such coins buried with Pope John Paul I, Father Curran said. “There wasn’t enough time.”