I NEVER WANT TO FORGET WHERE I STOOD ON APRIL 2, 2005
I still don’t know how I ever made it. Grace is like that.
It was the end of March 2005 and I was on a two week vacation in Palm Beach with my family praying, “Pope, please live. Please, live a few more days.”
I desperately needed a few more days off and a mental and physical break from the frenetic pace of my 24/7 newsroom life where, for the most part, the days bled into each other. I had a ton of comp days from working through Boston breaking news events of the year and was cooling it around the pool enjoying the sunshiny monotony before it was too late to cash in the time.
For the few months previous, the Associated Press was regularly breaking news on Pope John Paul II’s failing health, something I knew was imminent as a newswoman but as a Catholic daughter of his Pontificate that spanned my entire life, I didn’t ever want to consider Catholicism without him. Every time the AP alerts chimed we started to go through our Pope death plans and a subsequent fire drill that had me reorganizing a designated suitcase with just enough toothpaste, suits, and pajamas that ultimately would never be worn as we would never sleep except for a 10 minutes here or there on the floor of the NBC workspace. The AP breaking updates would ping, we’d make some calls to sources and check flights and he would rally. Rinse and repeat.
Everyone has that squad at work that keeps you informed even on vacation. In a newsroom environment, put that loyalty on speed dial and it’s a daily read in with the 411. While I was around the pool, I was getting calls from those colleagues about how this time it was “different” and “maybe you should fly back.” The word at the Vatican was that the pope was really serious. Then the news director called and told me that he wanted me to get on the next flight back because our designated Papal crew was getting booked on the next flight to Rome.
I remember I had one night left to scramble and get everything together that I would need for international breaking news travel. I’d been there multiple times before for work and personal trips, but the suddenness and geographic maze was a complete fire drill. I was not ready. I was not home. I did not have my passport. I only had flip flops and casual clothes and needed to get to the mall to scoop up a few serious outfits and sturdy shoes that would handle what could be weeks on standing feet covering his death, funeral and Pope John Paul II’s successor.
My mom drove me to the airport and somehow I missed the first flight out. That never happens. I started to pray and said, “God if I’m going, you have to make a way. This other plane barely will land on time for me to make the connection. I can’t worry about this. Either you are sending me or not. I’m surrendering this.” My mother hung with me until I made a run for the next flight and we prayed together.
No one had a key to my house except the landlord who was out of town and my passport was in a purse hanging on my bedroom door in the zipped interior pocket. The ninja assignment desk arranged for the news director’s assistant to cab to my house and as she reluctantly rode to my seaside Winthrop cottage, I was giving instructions for a breaking and entering through the kitchen window. It was this crazy and more, “Tell her to get one of the outdoor pieces of furniture, climb up, cut the screen window with keys, climb in – she will fit – and when she is in there, there is a park bench piece of furniture to catch her. Then go to my bedroom and the passport is in my purse hanging on the door.” It was like Holly Hunter from Broadcast News meets Holly Hunter from The Firm. It got done.
My dad wasn’t with us in Florida and he met me when I landed in Boston. He went to the station to grab the passport, my Pope folder of sources and contacts, and the travel cash that we would need for the trip to hand off to me as if we were in some sort of Spartan race. I just remember running and running and running until I made it through international security. On the other side, I met with our team and we were all hugs and smiles that we were ready to be wheels up.
With all the logistical hurdles, we were already in breaking news mode. I didn’t expect that we would actually get to the Vatican and he would still be alive. It was truly God’s grace to make it in time to be one of the first in St. Peter’s Square while he was still with us. We connected with NBC where the network had their space right on the ground level until we would later be positioned on a nearby roof for the duration of the coverage. We hooked up with the network bureau, Rome correspondents, Ambassador Ray Flynn and other thought leaders like George Weigel who were all piling in.
It was April and freezing cold in Rome. A coat was left off the mall scramble list of must-haves. We shook it off as we stood in the square and observed the people coming in one by one and later in streams. The Holy Father was drifting, but still with us. We were there. We were praying for him. Observing. Talking to people, hearing their stories and what compelled them to urgently come to St. Peter’s and stand in vigil. A compulsion we shared in our own professional pilgrimage to be positioned beneath the Papal apartments with them. Before his death on April 1st Pope John Paul II said, “I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.” This was the essence of the return of the love he poured out on the entire world, God’s love. God’s passion. God’s pursuit. God’s constant presence. The swell of people who came to make a return to the one who called them, spoke of God’s love to them, cajoled them, was epic. The Church was alive and not dead. Love was responding to love.
We’d work. Quietly reflect. Observe. Point out observations to each other. It was the calm before the absolute crush of humanity that descended upon the square as far as the eye could see which culminated on the day of his funeral.
I’ve never felt emotion like what I felt when the announcement of his passing was made. It was 9:37 p.m. The bells began to toll. To be standing there so close to his window where we stood below many times before in the same square experiencing his many Wednesday audiences, the canonization of St. Edith Stein and the Jubilee 2000. I first experienced his Papacy up close as a teenager at World Youth Day in Denver. I covered his United States Papal visits as a journalist and now this- this momentous full circle moment in time seemed to stand still.
As he passed, I believe so much grace was imparted. I know I received it. My life changed forever after this experience. It was as though the old was passing and the new was coming. He showed the world how to live and how to die. He brought the Gospel to the ends of the earth as the Vicar of Christ on earth. And he also showed us how to embrace every ski slope, every stage, every man or woman of good will, every baby, the sick, the forgotten, the young from all over the world, the sinner, the poor, the wealthy, athletes, the aged, the unborn, other saints, the Eucharist and the blessed Mother. He taught about family, friendship, and authentic love. He lived his life to the full, proclaiming forever the name of Jesus, up until he could not breathe one more breath.
A year after his passing, I was in Rome again. I was working for the Diocese of Palm Beach and traveling on vacation with Fr. Benedict Groeschel on a little pilgrimage through Italy. I went a few days early to enjoy private time in Rome and heard that there was a huge Polish celebration of Pope John Paul II’s life and that Fr. Stan Fortuna from Fr. Benedict’s order, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, would be performing as part of this gala event. I contacted Fr. Stan and to our amazement, he got us primo front row seats to this blessed occasion. It’s was a huge Polish scene that was broadcast live on Polush television. JP2s peeps and a few American priests (episcopal secretaries to Bishops) and us. (Thank you Fr. Stan!)
I actually may not have fully grieved his death until a year later because I worked right through it. This Polish remembrance crystalized everything about Saint John Paul II and gave us all time to process the loss, the legacy and how we were being called forward. It was deeply moving and we wept pretty much from top to bottom. There is a wrap song that Fr. Stan wrote and performed about JP2 that you may have heard. It’s called “I’m loving you” and when performed live I basically wanted to jump on stage and rock out to this. He nails it. Imagine this swank Polish event and then introducing “the American priest, Fr. Stan Fortuna” who in his Franciscsn garb and dreads wrapped this ode to our hero in full street Jazz – all soul. You can listen to it here. Here’s one verse I want to leave you with as we remember twelve years ago today, the passing of Saint John Paul II, the Great.
In the first days that you was gone
There was a void in my heart, dark like the
There you was helping me not to be
Pushing me to move on with energy,
purpose and determination, like you been
With the courage and the heroes of the Polish nation
With no hesitation, you went deep into the greatness of your vocation
I’m loving you
Another thing that this Pope did and did well was connect his kids. My dear friend Paul George and I were both in Denver for World Youth Day 1993. We both had profound experiences. If you are part of the JP2 generation and are feeling nostalgic, take a listen to my appearance on The Paul George show here. We talk about JP2, Denver and where we are now.
John Paul II, we love you! Saint John Paul II, pray for us!
Praying for you+