St. John Paul II appears on the balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica following his election to head the Church Oct. 16, 1978. OSV News photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo

John Paul II still looms large over Vatican

By  Magdalena Wolinska-Riedi, OSV News
  • October 18, 2023

ROME -- Raniero Mancinelli has been an ecclesiastical tailor for more than 40 years. He owns a shop at Borgo Pio, one of the famous Roman streets leading straight to the Vatican gate of Porta Sant’Anna.

During his career he dressed mainly Pope Benedict XVI as his exclusive tailor, but he prepared different clothes for St. John Paul II, although the official tailor of the Polish pope was the Gammarelli workshop in the historical centre of Rome.

“You are privileged” is the phrase he still uses to greet Polish people when they pass by.

Mancinelli was at Borgo Pio Oct. 16, 1978, when the pope was elected. He ran outside the workshop and heard from people running: “Pole! A Pole is the pope!” He followed political and Church affairs at the time and knew well that this election would be a “real revolution.”

“His charisma was astonishing,” he said of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. “I stood in St. Peter’s Square for the inaugural Mass. I remember exactly how he thundered with a strong voice: ‘Open wide the doors to Christ!’ And that was just the beginning. … We miss him so much. There will never be another like him,” he said before getting back to cutting the material for the next chasuble.

Forty-five years since the day of his election, the “papal court,” or St. John Paul’s collaborators, still remember working with the pope from Poland with a lot of nostalgia. John Paul II brought the slavic hospitality to the Vatican, changing many of the stiff Vatican rules, his collaborators said.

Employees of the tiniest country in the world became members of the informal papal family. They consider themselves lucky that they got a chance to work in an extraordinary place at a special time of history.

Luciano Firmani was a legend in the Apostolic Palace. He worked in the Vatican for 42 years, and he witnessed five pontificates. At the time of the conclave that elected St. John Paul, he worked in the technical department and was responsible for the logistical organization of the conclave in October 1978.

Just before it began, his task was to tightly close all entrances and gates of the palace so that no one from the outside world had access to the electors debating and voting inside.

“The last door to be locked was in the Belvedere Courtyard. The prefect of the papal household together with the commander of the Swiss Guard were supposed to complete the final round to make sure everything was properly locked,” he said. At the very last moment, at 4:55 p.m., all three of them issued an order to lock the last door. “Whoever was lucky enough to be inside, stayed there. All the others were locked outside,” he remembered.

At that moment the last of the cardinals, Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow arrived, almost late to the conclave.

“His car broke down just before it reached the Vatican. He reached the door gasping for breath, just as we stood there with the prefect and others, arranging wooden slabs in the door,” Firmani said. “We were supposed to bar the entrance in three minutes. Wojtyla saw it, and he said with a glimpse in his eye: ‘Come on, you want to lock the future pope out?’ ” Firmani said in the book Happened in the Vatican.

“He was beloved by countless crowds and he loved them too and took them to his heart almost physically at each opportunity,” said former chief commander of the Vatican Gendarmerie Domenico Giani.

“He had an incomprehensible gift of entering into personal relationships with millions of people he met along his way,” said Giani, interviewed by OSV News in the shadow of St. Peter’s dome inside the Vatican walls.

Giani worked in the Holy See official police unit for over two decades, until the end of 2019, accompanying Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis on dozens of trips to the edges of the Earth. But it is still the pope from Poland who remains indelibly in his memory and a point of reference.

“He was the pope of my childhood and my youth, but above all, the pope whom I had the honour to serve until his last moments here on Earth,” Giani said. “As the head of the papal security, I was with him when he crossed the threshold of the new millennium in 2000, when, at the sight of the ocean of young people on Tor Vergata (venue of World Youth Day 2000 in Rome), a new spirit seemed to enter in his heart. But I also spent long weeks with him in the hospital shortly before his death. I was his shadow during this most difficult period,” he said, pausing with emotion.

“He was a witness of inexhaustible faith, overwhelming humanity and great love for his neighbour,” Giani added, “but most importantly, he is still very much alive in the minds of millions of people all over the world.”

“I was very close to him. He was dearer to me than my own father,” Giuseppe Pelliccioni recalled.

“I left my family home when I was 18. I spent so many years with John Paul II from 1981 until he died. The last 10 years were particularly intense — I saw him every day,” said the papal gardener who worked on “special tasks” in the Vatican gardens — the only Vatican gardener who took care of the plants on the roof of the Apostolic Palace. He had his own private key and came upstairs every morning shortly after 7 a.m.

“We may not have talked on each occasion, but I was very, very close, just a few metres away,” Pelliccioni said.

He worked on the terrace while the pope was walking, praying, saying the rosary.

“The last time I saw him was three days before his death. He was brought up in a wheelchair. His agony was unspeakable. And when I went to pay my last homage to him on Sunday morning in the Clementine Hall, I felt a lump in my throat. My head was still full of memories — all the images from the rooftop, his jokes, and his low, vibrant voice,” he recalled.

The 45th anniversary of the election of St. John Paul was marked in the Vatican by Mass celebrated Oct. 16 at the tomb of the Polish pope at St. Peter’s Basilica by Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Krakow, who said that for Poles suffering under communism this election was “a visible sign of hope that something may change.”

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, longtime personal secretary of St. John Paul  told Vatican News that “he is still speaking.”

“Just come to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and see people sunk in prayer at his tomb. It’s enough to enter the papal shrine in Krakow, the churches in Wadowice or Kalwaria (in Poland), all the places that bear his footprints. People still listen to him, they want to seek his spiritual friendship,” he said.

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