The piazza at St. Peter's has become an eerie place, the world's largest waiting room for shaken pilgrims. We've all been expecting JP Due's passing for years now, it seems. But still it seems hard to believe that this remarkably resiliant old man won't be greeting the faithful, the lost, the casual and curious from his top-floor window any more. Staring up at his window Friday night during an impromptu prayer vigil that attracted some 75,000, I really felt as if this was the end of an era, moving even for this Catholic who struggles with his faith from time to time, and time again. For me, it just seems particularly dispiriting to lose a true leader (mind you, I still disagree with much of his orthodoxy) when leaders are in such pathetically short supply these days.
The Romans won't admit it, but I think they will miss him most. To Romans, the pope is a neighbor, a Roman. And like all neighbors, there are fewer good than bad, I suppose. Maybe that's why Romans usually speak of popes in the darkest of humour. When a pope is on his deathbed, they say in classic Roman understatement: Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro. Dead pope, just make another.
But, from the somber pall that's descended over this city, I'm thinking even the Romans must feel there never will be another Giovanni Paolo Secondo. In my short time here, he's become my favorite Roman (even if technically he's not actually Roman living inside those massive walls with an odd-looking flag flapping overhead). I've marveled at how much he has to say about matters big and small, concerns distant and right below his window. In December, I recall, he challenged the city fathers to do something about the traffic. The traffic! It's killing the spirit of the young (I assume he meant commuters), he told a gathering of politicians. He also told them to play nice and start serving the Romans. I thought: this is what London and New York need! Not a deputy mayor! A pope! Well, maybe not a pope. Just a good neighbor, one who doesn't mind us showing up under his window from time to time.