Pope John Paul II dies

26 years as leader of Catholic Church transformed papacy

Voices raised in prayer and song mark final hours

His Young Flock

Pope John Paul Ii : 1920 - 2005

April 03, 2005|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,SUN STAFF

VATICAN CITY - Before news of the end came, St. Peter's Square was not somber. Cheers sporadically broke out among the young in one corner of the vast plaza. High-pitched melodies rose up nearby. Across the cobblestones, just beneath the apartment where the 84-year-old Pope John Paul II labored to breathe, there were near-constant chants, almost joyous.

"Giovanni Paulo," the voices called.

These were the children who grew up with Pope John Paul, the only pope many of them have known.

Their presence spoke to a central contradiction in the pope's long tenure: He drew the young to him with warmth and charisma and humanity - even as he urged them to hold to the strict, traditional teachings of the church.

He preached relentlessly against premarital sex, abortion, contraception and female clergy. And yet young Catholics stood in the square for hours yesterday to pray for him and to sing to him as he lay dying.

"We want him to hear us," said a 26-year-old Francesca Pagnini, her hair in a girlish braid, who joined friends from Rome in calling to the pope in the last hours of his life.

"He has always been there with us, so we want him to know now we are here for him.

"I hope the next pope is as big as he was."

Attention to the young

The respect was mutual. Whether it was in his pre-cardinal teaching days or during his papal audiences or at the overwhelmingly popular World Youth Days, Pope John Paul paid special attention to the young.

His message at a Mass in New York in 1995 was typical: "Young Americans, the lord needs you. The church needs you."

"Stand up for purity," he urged another young crowd on the same American trip.

Those closest to him have said that until the end he would be physically energized by his audiences with the youngest of his flock.

In recent months, though he had become frighteningly frail, he had said he was determined to attend the next World Youth Day, an annual church festival, in Germany.

"We loved him," said Chiara Mazzotta, 18, who with friends stood in prayer for over an hour when the pope's death was announced.

It may be that much of this generation was taken by the telegenic charm and lively wit that transcended his illnesses. Or it could be that his embrace of absolute truths appealed to a generation raised on relativism.

Or it could be some combination that brought scores of teens and twentysomethings to jam rock-concert tight underneath his window and call up sincerely to a dying man old enough to be their great-grandfather.

Those in St. Peter's Square just explained it, repeatedly, yesterday as "love."

Lasting influence

Such devotion, at least among the most devout, is not likely to dissipate with the pope's death, church experts said in recent interviews.

His biographer, George Weigel, credits the pope's ability to reach the young with inspiring the current crop of seminarians - a group that in the United States, most agree, is more traditional than their immediate predecessors.

Many of the new seminarians are against the ordination of women, supportive of celibacy in the priesthood and interested in returning to some of the ceremonial pre-Vatican II traditions.

"They're enamored with the papacy of John Paul II. Some of them think that the Second Vatican went too far and that John Paul has reined in the experimentation and we're back on track," said Chester Gillis, head of Georgetown University's theology department.

In Baltimore, St. Mary's Seminary president, the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, agreed that today's seminarians tend to be in the mold of this pope. But he said that does not necessarily mean they are throwbacks to a rigidly conservative time.

They don't see Pope John Paul as a conservative but as a modern, flexible thinker who was also the most widely traveled of popes and a champion of human rights.

Critics of the pope argue that his connection with the young may have created an ever-more hypocritical Catholic laity, at least in America. The young may have flocked to him, but there is no evidence they heeded his strict teachings on morality - against contraception, abortion and premarital sex. The results could be an increasing divide between a lax laity and rigid church hierarchy.

The debate over that point of the pope's legacy will certainly emerge in coming days as cardinals gather in Rome and prepare to choose a new pope. But it was too soon for all that yesterday.

Lingering in St. Peter's Square meant focusing on a man and his death. Once it was clear that their pope could not hear them anymore, the Boy and Girl Scout troops ceased singing and the clutch of chanters fell silent. Many of them remained in the square, turning away from the papal apartment windows to look up at the bells that tolled and tolled, deep and mournful.

Or they didn't look up at all. They just kept their young eyes on the cobblestones that, by then, had turned cold.

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