The anniversary of Pope John-Paul II’s passing reminded me how we heard about his death in 2005. We’d been out to dinner that Saturday night and were walking home along the streets of Florence about 10 p.m. when, suddenly, church bells began to toll. Never before had we heard bells at that time of night but we knew immediately what the somber sound meant. Il Papa e morto. The pope is dead.
A crowd gathered on the steps of the Duomo. Some stood with heads bowed, others lifted their faces toward Heaven. For the most part, everyone was silent, lost in thought about the man, his death, and his life. Few words were exchanged but the one phrase that kept being repeated was santo subito, immediate sainthood, their hope for his speedy beatification.
A little more than two weeks later, I was writing at my desk when I realized that the bells of Giotto’s Campanile had been ringing for a minute or so. In itself, that was not an unusual event; they always pealed at 5:30 p.m. but wasn’t it a little later? I checked the time in the upper right-hand corner of my laptop screen: 6:12 p.m. There could only be one meaning to this joyous sound: Habemus Papam, We have a Pope. I turned on the TV and watched the smoke billowing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.
The celebratory bells outside our window marked the second time in a matter of days that such a sound had delivered the news, an unusual and medieval means of communication in this electronic age. The new pope, Benedict XVI, has sped up the process for John-Paul’s sainthood so it won’t take the usual five years, but there were those of us the night of his death who believed he should be given that status more quickly than the all-time record holder, St. Francis of Assisi, whose sainthood occurred in two years. Three years is long enough for St. John-Paul. Santo subito.