As millions around prayed for the most prominent religious leader in the world, my mind went back to February 1986. The time when Karol Josef Wojtyla visited India for the first time. Of Polish origin and a survivor of the II-World War ravages, he had opted for priesthood and risen to become the Supreme Pontiff of Roman Catholics all over the world, the 261st successor to St Peter in Rome, who chose the name John Paul II when he was elected Pope in October 1978 soon after his predecessor John Paul I died with less than a month in office.
I recall now my excitement in 1986, as in the run up to the impending visit, I was informed I would be the PSO (personal security officer) to the visiting Pontiff during the Delhi lap of his India visit. I was there at Palam airport on Feb 2, behind the line up of VVIPs there to receive His Holiness as he stepped out of the plane, and waved to those assembled below even as spontaneous cheers rent the air. President Giani Jail Singh, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and other dignitaries waited patiently for the Pontiff to climb down the ladder, but before they could shake his hands in greeting, there was the Pope bending down fully prostrate on the tarmac and kissing the soil of the country of his visit in blessing.
Following the ceremonial reception, the first port of call was to the Sacred Heart Cathedral near Gol dak-khana ? and throughout the long drive involved, I found myself in a trance, literally in awe in the virtual presence of the man ? The Almighty?s representative on earth. An unbelievable unlikely happenning even in the wildest of my dreams. The hair on my hands was standing, even as I sat on the edge of my seat just in front of the Pontiff sitting in the back seat of the six-door Presidential Mercedes with Delhi?s then Archbishop Angelo Fernandes ? fighting my awe-stricken trance for the alertness needed of a security officer guarding a VIP.
….And not the least, a personal audience and blessing he granted me, my wife and three little children, just before departing to the airport for other ports of call elsewhere in India…
There are some unforgettable visages indelibly planted on my mind’s screen of experiences that brought me down to earth to tell me he was still a human: Like when throughout all jouneys in Delhi over the next two days, I was acutely conscious and aware of the Pontiff?s hand placed on my right shoulder, even as he conversed with the Archbishop and took in the sights and sounds of Delhi as we travelled. Like the time when a ‘thunderbox’ portable commode of some old nuns from the neighbouring CJM had to be smuggled into the Cathedral Sacristy for the man to do something no one else could do for him in a church without a toilet ? an unpardonable lapse of an unanticipated contigency. Like when I, a Catholic boy brought up with immense reverence to the cassock and the ?habit? had to push, heave and shove the lot of stampeding Bishops from all over the country at the IG Indoor Stadium, eager to hold the Pontiff?s hand, touch his body or even just the tip of his robes! Like when the accompanying tall Swiss guards on sighting a tiny-tot in the gathering would yell out “bambino, bambino” and His Holiness would hold aloft the baby with delight, for all around to view. Like the time during one of the car journeys, he willingly obliged me and blessed the family rosaries and all the gold which I carried in a pouch just for the purpose.
And not the least, a personal audience and blessing he granted me, my wife and three little children, just before departing to the airport for other ports of call elsewhere in India. My delight had known no bounds when weeks later the Vatican Nunciature in Delhi had invited me over, for the Papal Nuncio to present me with a parcel of large sized photographs received from Rome, so graciously sent by the Vatican for me and my family to remember our moments with the Pope.
As I reminisced to transfer thoughts to paper, the Vatican and millions of people around the world were bracing themselves for the apparent inevitable. Newsreports everywhere announcing that Pope John Paul II is edging closer to death, having sufferred multiple organ failure and other complications. Earlier in the day, in what appered to be the last struggle of his 26-year papacy, the pontiff prayed with aides and doctors as his kidneys faltered, his breathing grew shallow, his heartbeat slowed and his blood pressure plummeted?. the vicar of Vatican City, telling thousands of anxious worshipers gathered in St. Peter’s Square, “This evening or tonight, Christ will open the gates to the pope.”
The Pope is no more. He died at 9:37pm (local time) on Saturday, the April 2, 2005 at age 84, even as the more than 70,000 faithful gathered in the square to pray the rosary continued to remain there for further prayers as the bell in the left tower of St. Peter’s Basilica began its death toll, one of the signals to the world that the Pope has died. He died on the 9,664th day of his pontificate.
Author: Maxwell Pereira- India