April 7, 2005 4:28 p.m.
I saw the Pope Wednesday afternoon.
I heard Italian police were letting media in the exit of St. Peter's Basilica. For credentialed members of the press corps, there was virtually no wait to view the body of the Holy Father. Since I'd be reporting on what I saw and wouldn't be cutting in front of anyone, I figured it was okay.
At 4 p.m., when I walked to one exit point in the Vatican wall, there were an estimated 1.2 million people lining the side streets and the avenue leading to Saint Peter's Square. They were determined to pay their respects, with an estimated wait time of up to 24 hours.
I met one young Italian man at the edge of the square who said he managed to get a good spot at 10 a.m. by skipping sections of the crowd. He was roughly two hours from the doors to the basilica at that point, for a total wait of 8 1/2 hours. I talked to someone else who got in line on a side street at 7:30 that morning, and at 10 p.m. still hadn't reached the plaza. 14 1/2 hours with no guarantee and no end in sight.
My journey was much simpler, and ashamedly faster. I showed my credentials to a series of Italian police and plain clothes security men at numerous checkpoints. I walked freely across St. Peter's Square, past the last few thousand mourners winding their way around the central monument and up to the base of the marble steps leading to the Basilica's massive front doors.
I took notes and pictures along the way. This was an extremely quiet and well-behaved crowd, but also a tired bunch. I wondered how the elderly had managed, standing for so long in what started as a chilly morning and became a surprisingly hot afternoon. Workers in green day-glo vests passed out water and information sheets to the crowd, instructions on where they might find help, transportation, and a possible place to sleep. Other workers in orange swept up the empty bottles and trash, keeping the line clean.
Many of the people were Italians, and some were tourists on preplanned trips. Others had taken the pilgrimage for the sole purpose of seeing John Paul II, calling it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At checkpoints along the way, ushers separated chunks of the line to allow safe passage of emergency crews in between. When the line moved and the ushers allowed those waiting to catch up, they would sometimes run, excited to bridge the gap and move that much closer to the inside of St. Peter's — by far the largest, grandest, and most incredible house of worship I've ever seen.
Even though it's my job to describe places and events, it's tough to do justice to St. Peters Basilica. I've been in some of the largest cathedrals in the U.S., including St. Patrick's in New York City, Holy Name in Chicago, and the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. I've been to Notre Dame in Paris, and other impressive and beautiful churches, mosques, and temples around the world, but it seemed as if they could all fit inside St. Peter's, with room to spare.
It is a massive space, with incredibly high ceilings all decorated with gold, carvings, paintings, and statues. The detail, craftsmanship, and artistry on the ceiling, walls, and floors is staggering and overwhelming, far too much to absorb in the short time visitors were allowed to spend filing past the Pontiff's body. In my humble opinion, this could well be the most beautiful man-made place on earth.
I got close enough to see the Pope, lying slightly inclined, surrounded by the brightly uniformed Swiss Guards, his head resting on golden pillows, his eyes closed and face drawn. There was immeasurable power in the great room, tremendous faith and curiosity, respect and awe. For most, a journey lasting a dozen hours or more ended with a viewing of perhaps 15 to 30 seconds, as the line was gently but forcefully moved past the body and towards the exits, and yet no one seemed disappointed.
In fact, everyone I spoke to was humbled, awestruck, and grateful for the experience. My colleagues reported similar reactions from people they interviewed. Yes, it was worth it. Yes, they were glad they came. No, they didn't mind waiting. Yes, they would do it again. This was a great man, they told me. A powerful world leader, a historical figure, a shepherd to the flock, a person of incredible strength and devotion. In some cases, the visit left them speechless, but deeply affected.
The vast number of people descending on Rome is testament to the influence, reach and impact of the man born Karol Wojtyla 84 years ago.
Pope John Paul II made a difference in millions of lives, and continues to do so. Choosing the next pope could be the greatest challenge the College of Cardinals has ever faced.
[Ed. note: Click the video tab in the upper right to watch Leventhal's reports.]
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Thank you for sharing your time in Rome with us. It means so much to those of us who dearly wish we could've been there in person to pay our respects to our beloved Pope. Please continue your fine work. God bless you.
— Carla (San Marcos, TX)
Your story made me feel I was there. You descibe St Peter's beautifully. Thank you from someone who couldn't go.
Very adept, succinct, moving writing about your seeing the Pope lying in state. I was moved to tears.
— Stan (Huntington, WV)
I want to thank you and FOX for the wonderful coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II. My wife and I have been watching it almost constantly since you started covering it when the Holy Father got sick. We have that same sense of being humbled, awestruck, grateful, saddened, anxious. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for which we gladly turned off regular programming to watch this coverage. We have been emotional, crying at times, joyful at times, and always thankful for your coverage. May God bless your work and boost your ratings out of sight.
Please share our sentiments with all at FOX and keep up the good work.
Your piece on your visit to St. Peter's and the Pope belie the title of your blog. It was anything but rambling. Thank you for allowing me to see and feel through your eyes and spirit.
Thanks for posting your blog as well as the great reporting that you are doing. My heart was full of emotion as I read your words and the awesomeness and reverence of the entire experience comes through loud and clear. Looking forward to more.
Thank you for your thoughtful blog of your experience in paying respect to Pope John Paul II. I felt as if I was there myself. Please keep up your excellent work!
— Laurie (Albany NY)
Your article was incredibly well written and moved me. Thank You.