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Students in Rome join in mourning pope

Justin Tardiff | Monday, April 4, 2005

When Ashley Sinnott arrived at St. Peter’s Square Saturday, the news of Pope John Paul II’s death had been reverberating around the globe for more than three hours. The square itself, however, remained suspended in time.

“Even though I didn’t get there until around 1 a.m., the piazza was still filled with thousands of people singing, crying and clapping,” the Notre Dame junior said. “There were backpackers with pillows sleeping under the columns, there were tiny altars set up all around the square, there were people with rosaries staring up at the pope’s window. It was very intense because everyone present was so emotional.”

Sinnott, who is studying in Rome this semester, was not the only Notre Dame student to experience the immediate aftermath of the 84-year-old pope’s death.

The impact of John Paul II’s death was felt intensely on the city streets, junior Laura Mullaney said.

“Rome has been quieter than I have ever known it,” she said. “So many people have been out either driving or just walking near St. Peter’s, but even among them it has been almost silent. There is an overwhelming feeling of sadness, but also of respect.”

Mullaney called the cycle of praying for the pope before and after his death “surreal.”

“Since Friday, I think most people over here have been aware that it was only a matter of hours, and we had CNN on constantly, waiting for the latest news,” Mullaney said.

“It was incredible to be there with thousands and thousands of people – Catholics, Christians and non-Christians all coming together to pay their respects and say some prayers.

“I know I will never forget how it felt to stand under the pope’s window with countless others, the smell of scented candles burning throughout the night, and the sound of one group in particular singing songs accompanied by a guitar.”

Junior Caroline Murray agreed, adding she does not expect the community’s intensity to drop in the coming weeks as the Church works toward selecting John Paul II’s successor.

“The whole city feels the effects of this event – St. Peter’s Square is the only place in the city that is crowded at all, which is unusual for a weekend,” Murray said. “It’s amazing to be in Rome right now. I really feel like I’m living a part of history.”

Notre Dame students studying abroad in Europe were drawn to Rome on Easter weekend for a reunion organized by Campus Ministry.

“There were students that traveled from Dublin, London and Spain to meet at the Colosseum for Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Apparently, Good Friday and the events that accompany it have always been very special for the pope, even more so than Easter,” Sinnott said.

“So TV monitors at the Colosseum broadcasted images of his watching our gathering. It was really a memorable experience to be in the middle of Rome with Notre Dame kids from all over Europe, watching the ceremony with the pope.”

Students were also present at the pope’s last public appearance, which occurred Easter Sunday.

“Easter Mass wasn’t said by [John Paul II] obviously, but he came out for a blessing at the end. I was there with the Notre Dame crowd again, and everyone was cheering and clapping when he appeared at his window,” Sinnott said.

“A microphone was given to him, but he couldn’t speak. He waved, and kept putting his hands to his cheeks, like he was crying. It was really emotional, because I think everyone knew this would be his last Easter – there was no way we could have realized it would be his last public appearance, or his last Sunday Mass.”

As the week went on, students were aware that the pope was nearing his final hours.

“I would say the overall mood that I’ve experienced in the last day is one of sadness, but also relief, because he’s been so sick there last few months,” Sinnott said.

“I know that when the original announcement was made to the square, they said ‘John Paul has returned home,’ and everyone clapped.”