3 April, 2005, Blantyre
IT WAS the sound they dreaded.
The tolling of fisherman’s ring high above the Vatican City brought tears to the eyes of the faithful who had gathered in St Peter’s Square to pray for the Pope.
But as the bells pealed in the night, proclaiming his death, hundreds sank to their knees, saying their silent prayers.
Inside, a job still had to be done, and officials set about their task of calling Cardinals and world leaders to let them know of John Paul II’s passing.
Within four to six days, the pontiff will be buried, a full requiem mass which he is thought to have specified in his writings locked away with his personal papers.
Details will be made known in the next day or so, probably today, and will have a bearing here in Britain.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s expected announcement of a General Election has already been postponed as a mark of respect.
A Royal wedding was to take place on Friday, but will not now go ahead.
It will be revealed in the Pope’s testament whether he wants to be laid to rest in St Peter’s along with the previous Popes, which is expected.
Others say he may have chosen Krakow’s famed Wavel Cathedral in his beloved home country, alongside Polish royalty.
No matter, the loss will be felt just as keenly by millions of Catholics everywhere, no matter the last resting place.
The funeral on Friday will now see Prince Charles travelling to be with the State mourners.
It falls on his wedding day, but the ceremony has been postponed to Saturday.
But the mourning begins long before then.
From as early as Friday, hundreds made the pilgrimage to Rome to pray for their Papa.
By Saturday their numbers had swelled, prayers being mumbled over the hours as news filtered through that he’d had the Last Rites, that the end was near.
Yesterday the trickle of tears became a flood. Churches in differing nations and divides packed out in prayer.
Normally Monday would see them deserted. But special masses will be held across the world, as the Vatican announces plans for the funeral as the official days of mourning begin.
Millions will stop for his funeral.
Hundreds of thousands are expected to line the streets along the cortege. It could be the biggest funeral the world has seen in a generation.
Tonight, some have lost a friend. And they like so many others, will turn to their memories for comfort.
Keith O’Brien, the Scottish Cardinal, said in Edinburgh that words had failed him when asked for just one he would have used to describe Pope John Paul II.
He couldn’t answer.
Given time, he later suggested ‘Underdog’ should be his eternal tag, as the Pope of the weak, the infirm, the elderly and the suffering across the world.
After all, he was unique, candidly questioning affairs of any given topic, whether people liked it or not. Yet some questioned his wisdom too.
Which is why even in the shadow of death, the politics will continue in the Vatican city to appoint a successor.
Time is now of the essence, with the conclave of cardinals having to elect a successor must begin between 15 and 20 days after the pontiff dies.
There are some 117 cardinals under age 80 and eligible to vote, among them Scotland’s own O’Brien.
After 26 years in the papacy, Pope John Paul outlived many of the men once themselves considered possible successors.
Now it could be the turn of a new generation.
Some say the Italians will vote to reclaim the papacy.
But others speculate that for the first time in 1500 years, the next Pope could be black.
Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian, is well quoted as standing a chance, increasing the already quickening spread of Catholicism across the African continent.
But Latin America may emerge as the favoured land, with both Claudio Hummes, the Brazilian Archbishop of Sau Paulo or Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the 62-year-old Archbishop of Tegucigalpha, among the favourites.
Most, however, are backing the emerging name of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a German heading the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Although ageing at 77, he is rumoured to have been persuaded not to retire by the Pope himself, in the hope that he would carry on his work.
Some hope he could be the one who would ensure that the largely conservative policies of John Paul II remain.
Among them his views against contraception, women priests and any change of mandatory celibacy for priests.
While millions mourn, the new journey for the church begins.
And so too does the waiting, and praying until the cry of “Habemus papam” – “We have a Pope” – rises above Vatican City to drown out the pealing of the Fisherman’s ring.
Many words have been used to described the Pope.
Last night, four seemed to sum it all up.
Simply: John Paul The Great.
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