Chicago Sun-Times April 9, 2005 Saturday

Copyright 2005 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. Section: NEWS; Pg. 2; RELIGION Length: 1135 words
Byline: Cathleen Falsani


VATICAN CITY — Rounding a bend in the dark cobblestone streets of Borgo Santo Spirito just before 1 a.m. Friday, the bodies heaped under blankets that lined the sidewalks and doorways evoked images of Calcutta rather than Rome.

“For an industrialized country, this is primitive,” an Italian gentleman sniffed in English as he passed a particularly rowdy collection of humans huddled together against the cold in front of some church steps on this narrow, old street behind St. Peter’s Square.

“Primitive, yeah!” 21-year-old Angie Bullaro of Chicago happily barked in response as she dealt another hand of cards to her friends and fellow classmates from Loyola University’s Rome campus, a motley band of unlikely pilgrims that had been camped out for several hours already with the hope of claiming a prime spot from which to watch Pope John Paul II’s funeral later that morning.

Nine hours later to be exact.

“Wanna sit down?” Bullaro asked a stranger, who, in her mutual quest to rough it out until the funeral at 10 a.m., became an immediate ally of Bullaro and the dozen other students from Loyola on the side of the road. “We can squish. Squish over, squish over. Ever played Phase 10? It’s really fun. We’ll teach you how to play. Want some water? Or a sandwich? How about a sandwich?”

The effusive generosity and collegiality Bullaro and her friends offered were phenomena that more or less overtook Vatican City on the day when several million pilgrims from around the world came to lay their beloved John Paul to rest.

The crowds were extreme, but kind. Determined, long suffering and faithful.

It was the least they could do, Bullaro and her cohorts said, to honor the man to whom they would bid a sorrowful farewell, the holy man they said loved the world with reckless generosity.

“He was such an icon for us, the pope,” said Bullaro’s classmate, Joanna Jadwiszczak, 20, a native of Poland who moved to the Chicago area with her family when she was 5. “I think it was because he was so different from other popes. He was a person and showed it. All other popes were like these authoritative figures, whereas he reached out to people. He visited all these countries and he held people’s hands.

“He showed people that he was human,” Jadwiszczak, of Crestwood, said, fiddling with the brim of the Cubs hat covering her long blonde hair, and searching for another sweatshirt or jacket.

The group of Loyola students and friends were joined by several seminarians from the North American College, a graduate-level seminary where many American men study to become priests. Together, they were determined to get as close to “Giovanni Paulo,” as the Italians call him, as possible. And they weren’t leaving anything to luck. They were looking for divine intervention.

At 2 a.m., after abandoning the complicated Phase 10 card game and facing off with a street-cleaning machine that tried to uproot them, the group formed a tight circle and, led by Mark Lenneman, 28, a gentle-spoken third-year seminarian from Billings, Mont., who leads weekly worship services for students at Loyola’s Rome campus, began to pray the rosary.

A little more than an hour later, after a number of decades and some friendly kibitzing with a sympathetic guard, the Loyola students and seminarians found themselves being let through a police barricade and onto the Via della Conciliazione, the broad boulevard leading directly to St. Peter’s, several hours ahead of 2 million other pilgrims.

“That’s the way God is, he really blesses,” Lenneman said as the group set up on a prime spot where they had a clear view of the altar as well as two jumbo TV screens — just in case. “We just walked up and down, just praying, saying, ‘Lord, if it’s your will, let this group get in. Because they deserve it, they really do. This will be a thing they will never forget. They’ve been faithful. They’re just good, good people and good believers.’

“I think that this experience has really stirred something deep in the hearts of everyone that is here, but especially the young people,” he said. “Because the pope always really was open to the young, but also very challenging to them, saying ‘We need you, the church needs you, and, more importantly, Christ needs you.'”

Jake Olzen, 20, of suburban Roselle, who had been studying in Florence this semester, spent Easter in Rome, where he met some of the American seminarians and saw the pope — he calls him “Papa” — twice before leaving to travel through Austria, Hungary and Germany. He was in Munich when he learned the pope had died and returned to Rome as fast as he could.

“Since Papa died, especially because of his passion and his love for the youth specifically . . . that has just kind of said to me, ‘What am I doing with my life and the gifts God has given me?’ ” Olzen said just before a seminarian pulled out a guitar and the group began to sing “My God is an Awesome God” as the sun rose over St. Peter’s Square. “This is really just [my] re-awakening and I have to go somewhere silent where I can hear, kind of, the quiet whispers of God about where I’m supposed to be headed.”

When the security gates were opened about 6 a.m. and tens of thousands of eager pilgrims carrying flags of their native lands ran down the boulevard toward the basilica, Bullaro, Jadwiszczak and two other young women clung to a large potted palm tree, like cowboys in a stampede. They watched the emotional three-hour funeral mass perched on the rim of the tree’s huge planter, standing among its branches, with a great view.

Jadwiszczak wept through most of the service, explaining later that she was moved by the number of Poles in the crowd and overcome with sadness that John Paul was gone. “He’s the only pope I’ve known,” she said. “All my life it’s been, ‘JPII, We Love You!’ ”

While Bullaro doesn’t understand Italian (and most of the mass was conducted in Italian), she said the experience was one of the most spiritually profound she’s had.

“I love God. And I love being with people who love God, and singing about God, and praying to God,” Bullaro said, as the enormous crowd slowly dispersed after John Paul’s body was taken back inside. “And that’s what we did for 14 hours — just worshiped God — by waiting for 14 hours to honor somebody who loves God so much and shared his love of God with everybody.”

As Bullaro animatedly described her experience, a weary looking Olzen turned up behind her. So what did he think?

“I’m not even gonna try, not even gonna try,” he said, words failing him before he disappeared into the crowd to catch a train to Switzerland, where he planned to continue his pilgrimage and listen for God’s whispers.


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