A humble epilogue for pope

Sun Foreign Staff

VATICAN CITY - In his final public words, written in his will and released yesterday, Pope John Paul II reflected on his life and his faith, asked the world and God to forgive him for his failings, and appeared to have contemplated stepping down in 2000.

The 15-page will was a humble epilogue to a remarkable life that this morning attracted a sea of mourners to St. Peter's Square for his funeral and final goodbye.

"I thank everyone. To everyone I ask forgiveness," the pontiff wrote as part of the last will and testament he began in 1979, the year after he became spiritual leader to 1 billion Roman Catholics, and to which he added his thoughts over the years.

"I also ask prayers, so that the Mercy of God will loom greater than my weakness and unworthiness," he wrote.

Pope John Paul made his last entry in 2000, updating it in intermittent years on the occasions of Lent, the 40 days that precede Easter and the most reflective period on the Roman Catholic calendar.

In a portion written in 2000 when the effects of his Parkinson's disease were already apparent, the pope appears to have been considering retirement, a prospect he never publicly acknowledged.

"I hope that He will help me to recognize the time until when I must continue this service, to which he called me on the day of Oct. 16, 1978. I ask [Him] to call me when He wants," the pontiff wrote, then quoting Romans 14:8: "In life and in death we belong to the Lord - we are of the Lord."

"I hope too that throughout the time given me to carry out the service of Peter in the Church, the Mercy of God will lend me the necessary strength for this service," the pope wrote in Polish.

At that time, he reflected on the 1981 attempt on his life, which left him gravely wounded, and he called his saving a "miraculous" result of Divine Providence and said it had committed him to Christ all the more.

But not everyone was convinced that the pope's words should be interpreted as a consideration of stepping down.

The Rev. Keith Pecklers, a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said he believed the pope was simply stating that his reign would end when the "Lord claimed him."

"I think what he was saying is, 'I could resign and some people say I should, but I will know when the Lord takes me,'" said Pecklers, a Jesuit theologian.

In the will, Pope John Paul also asked the College of Cardinals to decide where his funeral would be held and where he would be buried, although the pope, an avid hiker as a younger man and a lifetime lover of the outdoors, made it clear that he wanted not to be interred above ground, but with his casket buried in the earth.

"I express the deepest faith that, despite all my weakness, the Lord will accord me every necessary grace to face, according to His will, whatever task, trial and suffering that will be demanded of His servant, during the course of my life," the pope wrote.

"I also have faith that never will it be permitted that, through my behavior, by words, actions or omissions, I betray my obligations in this holy seat of Peter."

Pope John Paul made special mention in his will of his personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, whom he thanked profusely for his years of service.

He also recalled various Christians and non-Christians for thanks, including Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome, who was the pope's host during the pontiff's historic visit to Rome's central synagogue in 1986.

Long ago, in 1980, the pope made clear in his will that he was prepared for his end, whenever it would come.

"Accepting this death already, I hope that Christ will give me grace for my final passage, which is [my] Easter," he wrote.

Prayers of farewell began for Pope John Paul more than a week ago, on March 31. It was a sunny Thursday that turned into a frigid, somber night, a day of hope for the pope's recovery that - as the sun slipped behind the dome of St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican announced that the pope had received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick - turned into a vigil of diminishing hope that stretched nearly 48 hours and seemed to touch every corner of earth.

That evening is when Pope John Paul's flock began arriving in great numbers to stand beneath his bedroom window, gazing for hours at the soft light in his room.

They arrived first by the thousands and then by the tens of thousands, and they continued arriving for more than a week, into this morning.

As the pontiff clung to life, the pilgrims arrived to pray for him, but also to serenade him with hymns as it became clear that his 26-year papacy was about to end, that Papa, as they know him here, was about to die.

On Saturday, he did.

After a week of public mourning, thousands of people began camping out last night along the back curves of St. Peter's Square, part of the millions who had arrived here to see the pope's funeral.

The overflow would have to content themselves with views from the streets of the Vatican and the grand public places of Rome, where they would bless themselves and pray for the pontiff, watching the funeral on giant screens.

Perhaps 2 billion others around the world would be watching the services in their homes on television.

Those screens and televisions seem fitting enough for Pope John Paul, who from his beginning as pontiff recognized the power of technology and manipulated it to his every advantage.

"He was a great man who loved us - so clearly," said Pablo Amor Pero, a 20-year-old law student at the University of Barcelona, who traveled from Spain to the Vatican with friends after the pope's death and waited nine hours to view his body and then prepared to wait hours more for the funeral.

"For us," he added, "whether we would come for Papa's funeral was not debatable. We felt we must come."

If the life of the Roman Catholic Church's 266th pope was remarkable, the outpouring of adulation for him has been nothing short of astonishing.

The law student and his friends were among about 4 million people who made the pilgrimage to Rome to be with Pope John Paul.

Pilgrims lined up for hours from Monday and into last night to view his body for a final, fleeting moment, passing the pope as he lay in state, wrapped in crimson and white vestments, at the top of the nave of St. Peter's Basilica.

Then it was time for the customs of the Catholic funeral, where they prayed for his soul to rest in heaven, eternally.

As the influx of pilgrims began in earnest Sunday, officials announced a series of efforts to virtually lock down Rome even as more and more people were flowing into the city. Last night and this morning, officials were pleading with people to avoid St. Peter's Square and most of central Rome.

Part of the security considerations were for the largest gathering in history of world leaders on St. Peter's Square, including President Bush.

Bomb disposal teams were scouring Rome and Vatican City, and anti-mine divers were in the Tiber River. NATO sent an AWACS surveillance plane, and most air traffic over Rome was banned.

Security outside the U.S. ambassador's residence in Rome, where Bush was staying, has been noticeably beefed up since the president's arrival Wednesday. With him were former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Others arriving for the funeral included Britain's Prince Charles and Prime Minister Tony Blair, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Mexican President Vicente Fox and 150 foreign dignitaries.

The cardinals decided the pope's burial would be in the sacred grottoes beneath St. Peter's Basilica.

Pope John Paul requested that before being placed inside the traditional three coffins - wood, zinc and wood - his face be covered with a white veil by his personal secretary.

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