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VATICAN CITY — “This is like his final World Youth Day, but more somber,” mused Father John Heisler, chaplain of Christendom College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Virginia. “What a better way to honor the Pope than to have an impromptu gathering of youth.”
On the eve of Pope John Paul II’s funeral Mass, the youth arrived in droves and spent a final night camped out under the stars awaiting a Papal Mass — only this time, without the singing and dancing so common during World Youth Day events.
Using sleeping bags, cardboard boxes, newspapers and plastic sheeting as cover, the pilgrims huddled together to keep warm throughout the night. To those who brought absolutely nothing to protect themselves from the chilly nighttime temperatures, the Red Cross distributed plastic-backed paper sheets that had been kept on hand for medical use.
Yet, despite the cramped, uncomfortable conditions, complaints were rare.
Lying propped up against one of the cold pillars of the colonnade surrounding St. Peter’s Square, a flattened cardboard box placed as a makeshift cushion over the Roman cobblestones, New Jersey resident Jim Borrelli prepared for a long, cold night. With nothing more than a thin sleeping bag for shelter, Borrelli said he was ready for whatever comes his way.
According to Borrelli, he and his friend Daniel Selleck decided two days after the death of John Paul II to fly to Rome for a final goodbye.
“Think about all the stuff John Paul II has done for us. He even was willing to travel for us when he was ailing,” Selleck said. Sleeping out one final night was “nothing compared to that,” he added.
“This is definitely worth it,” he said. “He [the pope] has traveled all over the world for us; the least we can do is travel here for him.”
Despite the mourning, there was also a tangible sense of gratitude among many of the youth. With signs reading “John Paul II, we still love you,” and “Don’t be afraid to be holy” — a challenge the Holy Father put before the Catholic young people of the world — the pilgrims awaited the daybreak that would bring the funeral and their chance to say a final goodbye to their beloved pope.
One young Polish woman, wrapped in her country’s flag for warmth, a plastic sheet haphazardly covering her head — a remnant of the cases of bottled water that had been distributed to pilgrims — surveyed the thousands of faithful around her.
In broken English, she said, “We loved him. Still love him even now.”