Thousands fill St. Peter’s to mark anniversary of John Paul’s death


The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY – St. Peter’s Square twinkled with the lights of tens of thousands of candles and fluttered with the red and white flags of Pope John Paul II’s native Poland – then fell silent at the moment he died a year ago.

There was no dramatic tolling of church bells at 9:37 p.m. as there was in Krakow, Poland – just a brief moment of silence during an evening prayer vigil before the current pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, told the faithful that John Paul’s memory was still very much alive.

“He continues to be present in our minds and our hearts; he continues to communicate his love for God and his love for man, he continues to arouse in everyone, especially the young, enthusiasm for goodness and the courage to follow Jesus and his teachings,” Benedict said.

In his message, which was broadcast via videolink to Krakow, Benedict recalled John Paul’s suffering, which was so evident during his final days and weeks when he was unable to speak and managed only to bless the faithful weakly with his hand.

“His illness, which he faced with courage, made us all aware of human pain, of every physical and spiritual pain; he gave suffering dignity and value, showing that man isn’t just worthy for his efficiency and how he appears, but for himself because he is created and loved by God,” he said.

City officials said they expected between 100,000 and 150,000 people to attend the vigil, some 10,000 of them from John Paul’s native Poland, where anniversary commemorations were also held Sunday.

One group of Poles from a town near Krakow held aloft a huge red and white banner that read “John Paul the Great Santo Subito” – a reference to the banners that filled St. Peter’s Square during the pope’s April 8 funeral calling for him to be canonized immediately.

John Paul was remembered from Mexico City to India as an advocate for the poor who helped fell communism. Around the world, Roman Catholics praised his legacy and called for his beatification.

Tens of thousands filled Mexico City’s Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most important Catholic shrine in the Americas.

Many of the faithful used mirrors to reflect the morning sun to the heavens as a way of sending the late pope their love. Others carried framed photographs covered in ribbons. One group held a banner reading “Juan Pablo II, God’s athlete.”

John Paul visited Mexico five times and was received by wildly enthusiastic crowds on each occasion. He called the country “Mexico, ever faithful.”

At a morning Mass in Lagiewniki, Poland, near Krakow, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul’s longtime personal secretary, delivered a homily dedicated to John Paul’s swift beatification and sainthood.

“He contributed to the fundamental transformation of the world,” said Dziwisz, now the archbishop of Krakow.

Poles credit John Paul with inspiring the pro-democracy Solidarity movement in the 1980s, which sparked protests that helped bring down the communist regime in 1989.

In India, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, and Sister Nirmala, the successor of Mother Teresa, joined thousands of Indians who paid tribute to John Paul, describing him as an embodiment of peace.

During Sunday night’s vigil in Rome, selections from John Paul’s writings – his poetry, books and homilies – were read out to the faithful, interspersed with prayers, Gospel readings and hymns. The scene recalled that of a year ago, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims prayed underneath the papal apartment windows.

Giovanni and Graziela Breda of Rome and their five children aged 4 to 18 were among the faithful, who had staked out spots on the piazza’s cobblestones to gaze up at the Apostolic Palace where John Paul died.

“It’s a matter of respect to come here to pray for him,” Graziela Breda said. “It’s a happy day, because he is still with us, sees our needs and desires and what is missing in our lives, and is even closer to us now.”

During the noontime prayer, Benedict said John Paul would be remembered for one of his first messages, delivered in St. Peter’s on Oct. 22, 1978, days after he was elected pope. During that message, John Paul told the faithful: “Open, indeed, throw open wide the doors to Christ!”

Benedict said that appeal had embodied John Paul’s entire, 26-year pontificate – particularly during his many travels.

“In the final years, the Lord gradually stripped him of everything,” Benedict said. “And when he could no longer travel, and then could no longer walk, and finally could no longer speak, his announcement was reduced to the essential: the gift of himself until the very end.”

In recent days, pilgrims have been lining up to visit John Paul’s grave in a grotto underneath the basilica to pray and leave notes and flowers.

Souvenir shops around the Vatican, which over the past year have given equal space to Benedict and John Paul, by Sunday had reverted to the time of John Paul’s pontificate, with storefronts filled exclusively with John Paul key chains, calendars and snow globes.

Associated Press writers Daniela Petroff in Rome, Ashok Sharma in New Delhi, Krzysztof Kopacz in Warsaw, Poland, and Julie Watson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

Click video to hear audio