Excerpt: 'John Paul the Great' by Peggy Noonan

ByABC News via logo
November 30, 2005, 7:13 AM

Nov. 30, 2005 — -- It's been eight months since Pope John Paul II died and millions of people descended on Rome for the funeral. Since that day, the Vatican has begun the process of considering John Paul for sainthood. Author Peggy Noonan also felt compelled to remember the pope and to examine the message he carried into the 21st century.

Noonan, a devout Roman Catholic who has studied and reported on Pope John Paul II for years, said she learned a great deal about her faith from the pontiff.

"I learned a lot from John Paul about how to pray," she said. "When he was young, he would say to God: 'Yes.' He would say: 'When I got older, I would ask for things.'"Noonan's new book, "John Paul the Great," pays tribute to the popular leader, who she said never gave up his spirit despite the physical suffering he endured at the end of his life. She also shares with her readers a very personal account of her own journey of faith.

Below is an excerpt from "John Paul the Great."

Chapter One: I Saw a Saint at Sunset

It was early morning in the Vatican, July 2, 2003, a brilliant morning in the middle of the worst Roman heat wave in a century. The city was quiet, the streets soft with the heat. It was the summer of the dress code battle between the tourists and the guards at St. Peter's Basilica. The tourists wanted to wear shorts and halter tops; this was in violation of the Vatican dress code (slacks, shirts with sleeves), and the guards wouldn't let them in. There were arguments at the entrance, and angry words. Soon a Roman compromise was achieved: No one lost face; everyone got what they needed. The vendors in St. Peter's Square were allowed to sell paper shirts and pants for a euro apiece. The tourists would put them on over their clothes, walk past the guards, and tear the paper off as they entered the dark cool of the church.

By 7:45 a.m., hundreds of us had gathered in the Piazza del Sant'Uffizio, in the shadow of Bernini's colonnade, the marble columns that curve outward to embrace St. Peter's Square. Already the heat was gathering, and we fanned ourselves with thin green papal audience tickets. The crowd was happy -- chirping nuns, clicking tourists. We were about to see the pope. We were about to see John Paul.

We are a mix of tourists, the curious, and the faithful: a group of deaf Italian adults in white baseball caps, with silk Vatican flags tied around their necks; members of a choir from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri; a group of nuns from the Little Mission for the Deaf in Bologna. There was a man from Monterey, Mexico, with his wife and two children. As the crowd grew, we were pressed so close I could smell the spray starch on his green cotton shirt.

"Why are you here?" I asked.

"To see the pope," he said. "He is the most important Christian in the world. He is the follower of Christ." When, a few minutes later, I read the quote back to him from my notebook, he edited it. "He is the most important person in the whole world."

I talked to a woman in a hat made of hay. Spiky yellow straw, actually, the brim down to shade her face. She was forty-five or fifty years old and looked like pictures of the older, weathered Greta Garbo. She told me she was on a pilgrimage. She had walked hundreds of kilometers in a circuitous tour of Marian sites. She and her husband -- bearish, gray bearded -- had departed upper Austria in May and had arrived here yesterday, on July 1st. They had walked on highways and small roads. She showed me her diary of the pilgrimage: In neat precise script she had documented every church they had seen along the way. Her husband had drawn pictures of cathedrals in blue ballpoint ink. He had taken snapshots of little chapels and pasted them in the diary.

"Here," she said to me, indicating a page on which she had made comic line drawings. They showed angular feet bruised by exaggerated calluses. Next to them she had drawn the lotions and bandages she had put upon her wounds. They had gone to mass every day of their six-week journey, she said.

Why had they come here?

"Why? To see Il Papa!" She gestured as if to say: This is the culmination.

We filed through metal detectors that did not seem to work, no beeping or bopping, no one watching things closely. It is surprising to see metal detectors here, for a crowd like this, but the last time someone planned to kill the pope, in the Philippines, the would-be assassin meant to dress as a priest. Soon we were directed through a paved area just off St. Peter's Square. (Later, when I would return to it, a young priest would tell me, "We think he may have been crucified under here." I shook my head. "Saint Peter. It may have been just about here, down there." And he pointed at the pavement.)

We entered the Paul VI Audience Hall, an enormous concrete structure, cavernous and modern, like a big suburban church, or an evangelical McChurch at the edge of a city. Rows of fixed seats were aligned toward the stage. People were coming in single file and in groups, hundreds of them and then thousands. As I walked among them, I heard the languages of France, England, Mexico, Austria, the Czech Republic. There were groups from West Africa, Germany, Poland, Scotland, Portugal, and Brazil. A Romanian chorus of middle-aged women began to sing softly in their seats. When they finished, a choir from Bialystok, Poland, thirty young women and men, began to sing lustily.

Suddenly a rustling up front. Dozens of tall African women danced in, laughing and clapping in floor-length white cotton dresses. On the hems were sewn the words "Archdiocese of Freetown," in Sierra Leone. They sat next to Catholic schoolchildren from Rwanda, who were clapping and shaking tambourines.

I thought: The whole church is here.