Woman recounts final days of pope as seen in Rome

Thursday, April 7, 2005

Laura Wibbenmeyer, a 20-year-old broadcast meteorology major at the University of Missouri, has been studying at the University of Reading in England since January. She is a Ste. Genevieve native, went to a Catholic school and has maintained her faith since being out on her own. She plans to return home on April 12.

Her classes ended March 18, and she has spent much of her time hiking since her classroom duties ended. She happened to be in Rome when Pope John Paul II died.

Her parents are Larry and Victoria Wibbenmeyer of St. Genevieve. She is the granddaughter of Louis Flood of Cape Girardeau and Merle Wibbenmeyer of Perryville.

The Southeast Missourian contacted Wibbenmeyer by e-mail about her experiences in the days and hours leading up to the pope's death and about the overall impact the pope and her faith has had in her life.

You say you saw the pope when he visited St. Louis. What were your impressions then, and what impact did that experience have on your life?

Wibbenmeyer: After seeing the pope in St. Louis, my interest in him deepened immensely. Of course I had always had much respect for him, but being able to see him in real life and listen to his words was something I will never forget. The youth rally he attended really sparked my interest in the pope.

He was so interested in us, the young people, and he made sure we knew that. I can still to this day hear the chant "John Paul 2, We love you!" That chant echoed over the entire dome and was such a great feeling to know all these kids my age felt the same way about their faith. Little did I know I would be in Rome when he would breathe his last breaths.

For those who are not Catholic and may not understand the impact of the pope's death, can you explain what the pope meant to you?

Wibbenmeyer: The great thing about JP2 is that you didn't have to be Catholic to be influenced by his words. First of all, this is the only pope I have seen in my lifetime, and of course it hit home to me because he was very influential to the young people and he made an effort to be this way.

Everyone says young people are the future and we should embrace them, but yet many do not really act on that. JP2 was a man who acted on this and made the effort to speak directly to us. And when he spoke, he was not forcing Catholicism on anyone or putting down other faiths, and this is what made it so easy to listen to him. He spoke with extremely wise words, and they were never forced; he listened to us and spoke with us, not down to us.

Where were you when you found out the pope made a turn for the worse? Can you describe what it was like there? What images did you see? What sounds did you hear? How did you feel?

Wibbenmeyer: I was sitting in my youth hostel in Rome watching CNN -- one of the only English-speaking broadcasts in Italy -- and I had heard that the pope's condition had been taking a turn for the worse. Honestly I had not thought that this turn was going to take his life quite so quickly.

Then on the screen it flashed that the pope had died. But later we came to find out this was not the truth. Controversy came over Rome. Some of the Italian press had claimed he had passed away, but the Vatican still had not confirmed that.

Some other youths and I headed to St. Peter's Square right then and there. We got there and were greeted by thousands of others, some praying alone, some holding candles and some crying and holding loved ones. Not being able to speak Italian, we were confused about whether the pope had passed or not.

We sat and prayed with the crowd. After the vigil ended the crowd all fell silent. My eyes stayed focused on the lights coming from the pope's apartment window, and they were still on so we figured he was still alive. Also, the bells of the church had not rung, which also made us believe he was still alive.

Not only was his window shining brightly, but the Virgin Mary was lit up on the wall next to his apartment, and this was very symbolic, too, knowing how strongly JP2 was influenced by the Virgin Mary.

We whispered to the people next to us. They happened to speak English and explained to us that the square would remain open all night. They said we should stay in silence and pray for the pope.

Before the silence, it was amazing to hear all the songs of prayer taking over the square. Guitars seemed to come out of nowhere and people just flocked to them, singing in perfect harmony.

Then silence fell.

I would have never believed that that many people could actually remain silent. It was a very eerie feeling to be there and look up into his window knowing he was in there suffering.

My mind kept flashing back to St. Louis and seeing him smile and wave to us. I felt so lucky to be there, to be able to pray for his health knowing he was only several yards away.

The night he died I found out an hour after it had happened because I was enjoying some of Rome's sights. I was just walking on the street with some others I had met in my hostel, and we stopped in front of this bar that had a television and saw the news. Right then and there I knew where I wanted to be. The girl I had met just a few hours earlier knew, too, so we ventured off to St. Peter's Square.

When we got there I was astonished to see even more people than the last time I had been there. More prayers were taking place, but this time it was even more meaningful because I had met an Italian guy who was kind enough to be my translator throughout the service. Then, oddly enough, applause broke out, and I was really confused. After the translation I realized we were remembering all the great things JP2 had done, and applause seemed to be the least we could do.

This time when looking up to the pope's apartment all the lights on the top floor were on and you knew preparations for his funeral were already taking place. I stayed there for quite awhile and then headed back to the hostel. The next morning I ventured back to St. Peter's Square for the Mass in remembrance of the pope. This was the most crowded I had seen it yet -- everyone there together supporting the pope. It didn't matter what age, language, religion -- everyone was there to honor the most amazing pope yet.

All the news reporters were eager to get the comments of youths knowing that JP2 was very much focused on them. It was a very peaceful Mass, and I felt honored to be able to be there with the strangers to the left and right of me ... although in times like this they seem to be farthest away from strangers. We were all tied together through the love of the pope.

What are some things about this moment in history that you won't forget?

Wibbenmeyer: I obviously will never forget the day the pope died and where I was when I heard the news. I also won't forget the prayer services and the Mass I attended. People from everywhere came to give their respects to the pope.

Also, one of the girls I had been traveling with was affected significantly in my eyes. Although she is a Catholic she does not practice it at all. She was the first one to get out the rosary and start praying. She looked to me and asked if I would help her say the rosary since it had been so long and she didn't quite remember how it went. This hit me hard. Things as tragic as the pope's death actually do bring good things. Here is someone who has fallen so far away from the church and something this significant needed to happen to draw her back. She told me that before she hadn't even been sure there was a God, but now she can honestly say she knows there is. She said she couldn't explain why she now feels this way but it was OK ... she didn't need to give me any explanation at all. God works in mysterious ways, and I know this was a direct act of God.

I am hoping the next pope will realize that the young people are the future of not just the world but the church in general. I am eager to be able to look up to the next pope like I did to JP2. And although he can never be replaced he has laid down an amazing path for the future of the church.

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