The Piazza San Pietro was alive with expectation. An iron gate to the left of Saint Peter's Basilica was opening, and the crowd could see the front of the white Papal car. It was the last Wednesday in April, 1992; and the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, was entering for his regular weekly audience.
I was seated in front of the platform on which the Pontiff's throne had been placed. With me were two bishops from France, one from Africa, one from Germany, and one from Japan. Behind me, separated by only a waist-high barrier covered with red damask, was the fourth-year class of the American Seminary in Rome, the Pontifical North American College. Twenty-eight strong, they were to be ordained deacons in Saint Peter's Basilica the following Saturday. Because of my responsibilities with the College, I was in Rome for three days and had joined the seminarians for the audience to which they had been specifically invited by the Holy Father.
John Paul II completed his ride through the Piazza and took his place on the Papal throne. It was evident that he was enjoying himself thoroughly. He waved to various groups as they thrusted banners into the morning air, and a warm smile of contentment never left his face.
When the applause finally subsided and the crowd came to order, the Holy Father's Secretary, Monsignor Dziwisz, handed him the written text of his audience address. It was in Italian and had for its subject the Anointing of the Sick. I looked back over my shoulder and caught sight of a fourth-year seminarian from the Diocese of Bridgeport. His eyes and those of his classmates were fastened on the Successor of Peter. All were intently following each and every word.
The address was brief, clear, and just what one would expect from a pastor of souls. It opened with a commentary on the section from the Epistle of Saint James in which the Anointing of the Sick is both described and prescribed. "Is there someone among you who is sick?" the Holy Father read from Chapter Five of the Epistle. "Let him call for the priests of the Church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him."
Having completed the commentary, John Paul II explained that we should not be surprised that the Lord instituted a Sacrament precisely for those who are ill. From the very beginning of His public life, the Pontiff observed, our Savior "cured and healed" and taught His closest followers to do the same. He could hardly have left His Church without a sacred ritual for those in poor health.
The address in Italian came to an end; and it was repeated in French, English, Spanish, German, and Polish. I turned again to see the seminarians behind me. Their attention was still riveted upon the Bishop of Rome. That they understood all the languages he was speaking, I am inclined to doubt. That they were listening with persistence, I can attest most confidently.
My own mind, however, began to wander. It drifted back thirty-four years to a bright Saturday afternoon in the late summer in 1958 when I was called for the first time to "give the Last Rites," as we used to say then, to a man in a hospital not far from the rectory of the parish to which I was assigned as a curate.
I had prepared for the event with extraordinary diligence. My Ritual, the official book for the administration of Sacraments, was thoroughly annotated in red pencil. In the margins I had numbered each step in the ceremony beginning with the sprinkling of the hospital room and continuing on through Confession, the Anointing, the giving of Holy Communion, and the final Apostolic blessing. Nothing had been left to chance. The patient would be guaranteed everything a priest of many years experience might have offered.
I entered the hospital room and found there a man of perhaps fifty years of age. He was breathing with considerable difficulty, and each struggle for air sent what almost seemed to be a shudder through the two women and three men who sat on chairs around his bed.
I approached the woman whom I surmised to be the sick man's spouse and proceeded to introduce myself. Suddenly the door of the hospital room opened and in came a priest quite advanced in years. The five who had been seated rushed toward him, and with arms spread wide he embraced them all.
What was said I frankly do not know. Everyone was speaking at once, and they were all speaking in Polish. The priest smiled briskly at me and handed me his black homburg hat. Then from one pocket he extracted a little bottle of holy water, from another his Ritual, from another a container of sacred oil, and from his breast pocket a pyx in which a consecrated host had been placed.
What followed was as spiritually moving as anything I had ever had the privilege to witness. The priest and the five whom he had embraced knelt on the marble hospital floor for several minutes in silent prayer. Then the priest rose, slowly sprinkled the hospital room, and at length gestured to us to leave so that he could hear the confession of the patient.
In the corridor the five continued to pray, their hands folded and their heads bowed. When we were invited back into the hospital room, the Anointing was done with touching devotion. The priest's Ritual lay closed on one of the chairs. He had all the Latin prayers securely committed to memory.
We knelt while Holy Communion was given to the sick man and remained kneeling again for several minutes. Finally, the priest stood up, conferred the Apostolic Blessing in Latin, knelt again, drew a rosary from his pocket, and led it in Polish, piously, determinedly, magnificently.
As the mysteries of Mary's life slipped through our fingers, the patient's breathing became more relaxed. "The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick," I thought to myself, recalling the words of the Epistle of Saint James. And all the while I pretended to be reciting the "Our Father's" and "Hail Mary's" in Polish with the saintly priest and the five saintly members of the Lord's Priestly People who knelt beside him. Never after that did I fear that I would forget an element of the "Last Rites." Each was firmly seared into my memory of things good and holy.
As I got to my feet and began to edge toward the door of the hospital room, the woman whom I had thought to be the sick man's wife came over to me, grasped my hands, and looked at me apologetically. "Thank you, Reverend Father, for coming," she said. "But this, this is our pastor."
And she sobbed softly as I took my leave.
The Holy Father conferred his Apostolic Blessing upon all in the Piazza and then kindly invited the American College seminarians and myself to join him for a photograph at the foot of the platform from which he had spoken to the crowd. I smiled for the cameramen, all the while thanking the Lord for another powerful lesson in ministering to the sick from a saintly pastor, and a Polish pastor at that.
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