The message of the death of St. John Paul II, 14 years later

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 02, 2019

Fourteen years ago today we witnessed an unprecedented phenomenon: a worldwide vigil. The eyes (and television cameras) of the whole world were focused on a single location, St. Peter’s Square, as we waited for the inexorable announcement that Pope John Paul II had died. Then when the announcement came, another unique and unexpected result: the thousands of people waiting outside the apostolic palace responded with quiet, reverent applause.

Applause—at the death of a beloved man? Why? The reaction was spontaneous; I don’t think people had planned how they would react. At the time I interpreted the applause as homage to a life well lived. The cries of Santo Subito! heard in the same square a few days later support that interpretation.

But with the passage of time I have come to believe that there was another reason for the applause: an implicit recognition that something good had happened, not for us, but for John Paul II. The people gathered at the Vatican that night probably couldn’t have put what they felt into the proper words; neither could I at the time. But at some level, I submit, we were affirming—the applause affirmed—the confident Christian belief that our Holy Father had finished his suffering and entered into his reward, that with Jesus he had overcome death.

“Be not afraid,” Pope John Paul admonished us frequently. He powerfully underlined that message as he lived out his final illness in the full glare of international publicity: surely the most public death of all time. And we acknowledged the message as he crossed his own last threshold of hope.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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