'It feels like a funeral within me'

The line to sign the condolence book at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Johannesburg grows steadily. It is 5.30pm on Wednesday evening and the memorial Mass for Pope John Paul II will start in 30 minutes.

“The death of the pope is one of the biggest losses in my life,” says Helen Minnie. She lives across the street from the cathedral.

“When I looked at him, I saw God’s love pouring out of him.
For me, he represents holiness and purity. I keep hearing his last words: pray, pray, pray. They will remain with me forever.”

Minnie leans against the balustrade at the entrance of the cathedral, fighting her tears.

“The last few days, my life has been in great turmoil. It is a personal loss and it feels like a funeral within me.”

The atmosphere in the line is serene; the congregation that gathers for the Mass is visibly touched by the loss of the pope. Nobody speaks.

“My whole life has been connected with Pope John Paul II,” says John Ogle (26), from Kibler Park. “I was born in May, in the same month the pope was chosen. That is why my parents named me John.

“For me, he represents peace. When I look at the pictures from Rome on DStv channel 51, I can see how he touches people. Young children, who would normally be scared by the sight of a dead body, are touched and become emotional when they look at him.

“When I heard the announcement of his death on e.tv, I did not believe it at first. But when I switched to the SABC [South African Broadcasting Corporation], it slowly came to me. At first, I felt relieved because I think he has suffered a lot,” says Ogle.

“Later, I became sad when I realised we might never get a pope like him. You do not know what the next pope will be like,” he adds.

The people inside the cathedral start to pray. The evening falls and the scene around the cathedral is in stark contrast with the busy life on the street in Doornfontein. The flickering lights of the Vodacom tower reflect in the stained-glass cathedral windows.

“He was a great man who managed to bring together millions of young people around the world. You cannot ignore that, and that is why I am attending this Mass,” says Jeannot Laeira (32), from Angola.

“For South Africa in particular, he was very important, he was one of the first people to speak about social evil. He was one of the first to contribute to the worldwide condemnation of apartheid. And he has always spoken in favour of the reduction of Third World debt.

“Personally, I admire his moral values like his stand on abortion and euthanasia, and the uncompromising way in which he preached the teaching of the church,” says Laeira.

As Laeira signs the book of condolences, the clergymen pass the side entrance of the church. In front walk three Mass servants, carrying a cross and two candles. In the middle is Archbishop Buti Tlhagale.

Inside the cathedral, which is filled with people, stands a picture of the pope on the left side of the altar. A wreath of flowers surrounds it, and two candles are burning in front.

In the memorial Mass, the archbishop praises the pope’s holy lifestyle.

“He has served his master well,” he says.

He also says African Christians reached maturity under the guidance of Pope John Paul II. He praises the pope for recognising local culture and encouraging a sense of cultural identity among African Catholics.

The archbishop also touches on more controversial matters and praises the pope’s stand on the use of contraception. 

He concludes by saying that Pope John Paul II had brought to light that an end to the suffering of the poor on the African continent can be achieved through work, and not by holding up hands and depending on charity.

After the Mass, the congregation flocks outside. The area around the cathedral fills with people from all walks of life.

“For me, the pope has been very important as a spiritual father,” says Sean O’Neil (18), from Ruimsig in Midrand. “He was an inspiration to the youth group in my church. We are now raising money to go to the Catholic youth day in Germany in August.”

“For our family, the pope is special,” his mother adds. “The highlight for Sean, I think, was when we went to see the pope in South Africa. That was the same day as his birthday, and seeing the pope made his day very special.”

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