Memories of the last days of Pope John Paul II

The final days of Pope John Paul II had a profound effect on me, writes Michael Kelly

The final days of the earthly life of Pope John Paul II had a profound effect on me. As I reflect on the ninth anniversary of his death on April 2, 2005 I vividly recall those days in Rome. I was working as a young reporter in the Eternal City and had become accustomed to the regular health scares around the ailing Pontiff. I, like many other colleagues, had spent endless hours outside Rome’s Gemelli Hospital. But on every occasion, the Pope rallied and returned to the Vatican.

Late on the evening of Thursday March 31 news started to filter through that the Holy Father had taken another turn for the worse. But this was more serious. On this occasion, John Paul II and his doctors decided that he would not go to hospital, he would instead be cared for in the Papal Apartment.

It became obvious very quickly that the Pope was nearing his end after more than 26 years guiding the universal Church.

What followed was remarkable. St Peter’s Square quickly became a shrine as pilgrims – most of them young people – came to pray. They too knew that the Pope who had led the Church during most of their lives was reaching the end of his strength. All eyes were peeled on the bedroom window on the Apostolic Palace. By the following evening, Friday, tens of thousands of Romans and visitors gathered in churches across the city to pray for their bishop. Meanwhile, the world’s media descended on the Vatican as ever-more-sombre bulletins about the Pontiff’s deteriorating health were issued.

Broke down

On Saturday afternoon, the chief Vatican spokesman Dr Joaquín Navarro-Valls said it all when he broke down during a media update. “I’ve never seen him like this,” the Pope’s long-time aide said fighting back tears.

I was working on the English desk of Vatican Radio on Saturday afternoon when I was handed a communique to read out:

“The general, cardio-respiratory and metabolic conditions of the Holy Father are substantially unchanged and therefore are very serious.

“As of dawn this morning, the start of a compromised state of consciousness was observed. Mass was celebrated at 7:30 this morning in the presence of the Pope.

“Last evening the Pope probably had in mind the young people whom he has met throughout the world during his pontificate. In fact, he seemed to be referring to them when, in his words, and repeated several times, he seemed to have said the following sentence: ‘I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. and I thank you’,” the communique concluded.

I had a lump in my throat as I read it. I too had been one of those young people who had encountered John Paul II during World Youth Day in Rome in the year 2000. “Do not be satisfied with mediocrity,” was his repeated call to us. My first encounter with the Polish Pontiff during that Jubilee Year had a profound effect on me as I saw how he radiated the love of Christ for everyone, particularly young people.


As darkness descended on Rome on Saturday evening thousands of sombre pilgrims made their way to St Peter’s Square. All over the city, people waited for news of the Pope’s condition. The faithful prayed the rosary in St Peter’s Square as the lights in the Papal Apartment continued to burn. Inside, however, John Paul II was in his last moments.

Shortly after 9.45pm, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, who had been leading the rosary interrupted the prayer with the simple words: “Our Holy Father John Paul has returned to the house of the Father…We all feel like orphans this evening.”

Many pilgrims wept openly, or hugged one another for comfort. I was struck by the spontaneous round of applause.

I was with colleagues from RTÉ on a rooftop nearby when the news of the Pope’s death came through. I quickly took off my tie and replaced it with a black one which I had been carrying around ready to go on air and discuss the legacy of the man who had led the Church through good times and bad for my entire life. I was broadcasting with Miriam O’Callaghan with the Papal Apartment in the background assessing what can only be described as a remarkable Papacy. I was profoundly struck when, one by one, the lights in the Papal Apartment began to go out until it was in complete darkness. It spoke powerfully of how people felt.

News quickly began to filter out. At around 3.30pm, John Paul II spoke his final words in Polish, “Pozwólcie mi odejść do domu Ojca” (Allow me to depart to the house of the Father), and fell into a coma about four hours later.


The Mass of the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday had just been celebrated at his bedside, presided over by Archbishop Stanisław Dziwisz and two Polish priests. Present at the bedside was a cardinal from Ukraine who served as a priest with John Paul in Poland, along with Polish nuns of the Congregation of the Sisters Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, who ran the papal household.

John Paul died at 9.37pm of heart failure from profound hypotension and complete circulatory collapse from septic shock, 46 days short of his 85th birthday.

It was the early hours of the following morning when I got home. I was, after all, a journalist and this was probably going to be one of the biggest stories of my life.

As I walked home that night I reflected on what John Paul II had meant to the world. On what he had meant to Catholics in every corner of the globe and what he had meant to me. All over the city in restaurants, shops and bars signs were in the window: “Farewell Holy Father”. The early-morning buses getting ready for their routs all had black flags. There too were the banners “Santo Subito” – make him a saint immediately. The Church had lost its Pope and Rome had lost its Bishop.

I thought of the words he uttered at his inauguration in 1978 and repeated in almost every country on earth: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ!” I thought about how my parents told and re-told me stories of the Pope’s visit to Drogheda when I was just a few months old. How he had proclaimed in a strong voice “let history record that at a difficult moment in the experience of the people of Ireland, the Bishop of Rome set foot in your land, that he was with you and prayed with you for peace and reconciliation, for the victory of justice and love over hatred and violence”. Yes, John Paul II came to be with us.


I thought about the many lives that John Paul II had transformed, at the many people whom he touched by his heroic witness. I thought of his childhood and adolescence marked by those cruel ideologies of Nazism and communism that sought to destroy his Polish homeland.

I thought about his great love for young people. His call for them to be ambassadors for a new civilisation of love. In 2002, he said in Canada: “I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young.

“You are our hope, the young are our hope,” he said.

I thought about his declining health, about how his illness radically challenged the belief that older people, the sick, the dying are redundant. I thought of his last visit to Lourdes in 2004 when he spoke as a “sick man among the sick”.

I shed a tear as I thought about the extraordinary gift that the man Karol Woytyla had been to the world and to me personally. And I said a prayer that he would continue to lead and guide us from Heaven.

The greatest of great men had indeed returned to his Father.

John Paul II, pray for us.