Il Papa

Briefly: Just happened to look at The New York Times site, and see reports there and elsewhere that the pope is near death. No surprise there — he’s been very sick for a long time. But still: The pope is dying. What’s odd is that, despite not having gone to Mass or taken any of the sacraments except on very rare occasions for nearly 40 years, I can be so quickly carried back to Catholic school days and the sense of gravity surrounding the death of a pope.

I’m thinking of Pope John XXIII (I can probably thank him for my early knowledge of Roman numerals) when I write that. He was a sort of kindly old guy who came after Pius XII, who was a cipher in my pre-school appreciation of matters ecclesiastical. I remember Mom liked J23, and thought he was doing good things in the church. I didn’t really understand what things he was doing, but there was the feeling he was a little looser and less formal than people were used to. The Wikipedia article on him has a great anecdote:

“When the First Lady of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy, arrived in the Vatican to see him, he began nervously rehearsing the two methods of address he had been advised to use when she entered: ‘Mrs. Kennedy, Madame’ or ‘Madame, Mrs. Kennedy’. When she did arrive, however, to the amusement of the press corps, he abandoned both and rushed to her saying, ‘Jackie!’

Then he died, in 1963, in the summer between third and fourth grade for me. In Chicago, Catholic as it is — or was then, anyway — it was a big deal, and I remember a big black headline on the Daily News, which has, like all the popes except one, expired, too.

2 Replies to “Il Papa”

  1. Yeah, I remember that day–when John XXIII died–as well. I was home from school, probably malingering with some imaginary illness, when the news came over the television. Mom got down on her knees and prayed for him. She had me do the same, as I recall. I thought this was something really serious. Since then John XXIII has been canonized by the present Pope, having his highly embalmed remains removed, in a bizarre ritual, to a new site in the Vatican. That was a weird sight. I reckon JPII will be sainted before long as well. I read somewhere that John Paul has the longest papacy in history after Pius IX and “The Rock”, St. Peter himself.
    Peter, Pietro comes from the Greek word “petro” meaning rock or stone. And as long as I’m thinking out loud, I wonder if that explains the name of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan which is carved into stone cliffs.
    In December, 1983, Mom and I were in Rome. While we were there, John Paul went to the prison where Metmet Ali Agca was being held, serving time for his attempted assassination of the Pope. The Pope offered forgiveness to his would-be assassin and I recall that Mom was so very impressed with him for doing this. She thought this made him a great human and while she was ambivalent about The Church all her adult life, this was something that could help her re-connect. If Mom were still around I think she would pray for John Paul the same as she prayed for John XXIII. Well, so long John Paul. All things on balance, he came up strong on the credit side of the ledger.

  2. John,
    I never heard that story about Mom and Pope John before. I remember she was deeply affected by it — but the memories I have are mostly of her talking about it. The other thing I remember is that his funeral was one of the first events televised live via satellite; I remember pictures of the pope being carried into St. Peter’s, I think. And speaking of St. Peter’s, here’s a good list and brief discussion of the longest-serving popes: http://www.answers.com/topic/list-of-10-longest-reigning-popes
    According to that, JPII is Number 3 on the list. That’s if you count St. Peter, and there’s a debate about whether he can be considered a pope at all. Even if he wasn’t, he was certainly one bad-ass apostle.

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