The circular church, with a crucifix hung from the sun roof directly above the altar, was bustling before 6 p.m. yesterday. Ambassadors and and other UN officials greeted each other as if in a reception at the St. Nicolas de Flue Parish in Geneva. But the mood of the mourners dramatically changed when the bell tolled to signify the start of the Holy Mass. The incense burned and the church was filled with its ancient yet familiar smell. The quick tapping of the Swiss guards' feet ushered in the clergymen who would concelebrate the mass.
Marching to "How Great thou Art," the guards took their places. One in front of the altar, two at the side and two more around the Papal Nuncio, the ambassador of the Vatican. These are the guards sworn to protect the members of the Holy See or the Vatican.
The congregation sang to the popular song and soon, the life of Pope John Paul II would again be recounted. This was the second mass I attended in his honor.
"Do not be afraid," was what the Pope said upon his accession to St. Peter's role, the Nuncio recalled in his homily. The head of the Catholic Church began and ended living these words.
The attendees were not all Catholic. I saw my Muslim classmate. My colleague, who is half Catholic and half Protestant sat beside me. More non-Catholics could be seen in the mass. But it didn't matter. The Pope was not only for Catholics, he was for the people. And everyone gathered there shared his vision and mission - to be equal as children of God.
The Mass was celebrated in many languages highlighting the six UN languages - Arabic, French, English, Russian, Chinese and Spanish. Polish was also used in the Prayer of the Faithful as the late Pope was Polish. Latin was used in the many hymns.
The mood was somber and solemn. The passing of a great man was deeply felt in everyone as silence embraced the Church. The traditional Catholic Mass doesn't differ, no matter what place or language is used to celebrate it. Because of this tradition, any Catholic can follow the mass wherever she or he is.
This was again seen in today's Requiem Mass for Pope John Paul II in the Vatican in St. Peter's Square where Latin was used. Millions of people filled the Eternal City to bid their final farewell to the third longest reigning Pope who for 26 years has tried to do the will of God.
The bells tolled to mark the entrance of the sheperds of the Church and the Papal men carried the body of the Pope in a cypress coffin. He was placed in front of the altar.
Earlier, hundreds of multi-faith world leaders took to their seats to pay their last respects in the Holy Mass. Muslim kings sat beside Catholic and Protestant presidents. Eastern Church clergymen concelebrated with Roman Catholic priests. The Eastern Patriarch even gave their traditional benediction.
The streets of the Vatican swelled with people. This is because of one man, a faithful servant of God. Banners waived, "Santo Subito" which means in Italian, "soon to be saint." Numerous Catholics believe that the late Pope should be made saint.
It is an overwhelming feeling to watch such a gathering of people because of one man. He was not only the head of the Church but he was a proponent of peace and forgiveness. The Pope spent his reign reconciling the Church with other faiths especially Judaism. He was the first Pope to enter the Jewish synagogue in Rome. He tried to bridge gaps between Muslims and Christians. He restored diplomatic ties with the United States. He asked for freedom of religion in communist Cuba and was critical of liberal capitalism.
He was a political figure as much as a spiritual leader. Philippine Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was interviewed on CNN and she commented on how the Pope influenced her in key decisions. One being the moratorium on the death penalty and the other joining the bloodless second People Power Revolution which ousted then Pres. Joseph Estrada.
Many people have been touched by the life of the Pope. I consider myself blessed to have seen him twice in person and at such a close range when I attended a youth gathering in Berne last year. The Pope had a way of looking at the audience as if he was directly looking at you.
The Pope was a simple man.
He went to the Philippines twice. My mother saw him in 1981 when he first came to the country and visited our province, Bicol. He also visited the poorest area of Metro Manila and spent his time with the people. In 1995, World Youth Day was held in Manila and again, the Pope was pleased to see about four million gather to celebrate God's presence in our lives.
About a million people share some personal memory of the Pope. He will surely be missed.
As the world bids goodbye and mourns the death of the Pope, there is always hope in the resurrection. And hopefully, John Paul II is with the Risen Christ now.