Witnessing history: Steven McDonald in Rome when Pope died

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The recent death of Pope John Paul II has been, without question, the biggest news story so far in 2005. But one Demopolis native hasn’t had to rely on television stations, newspapers, or the Internet to provide him with images and information from Rome. That’s because he was there as it happened.

Steven McDonald, son of Demopolis City Schools Foundation president Jan McDonald, is a college student spending a semester studying abroad in Italy. As if that experience wasn’t unique enough, McDonald has been able to see first-hand the country’s reaction to losing its beloved leader.

“It’s tragic anytime someone passes away,” McDonald says in an interview conducted via e-mail. “But if it had to happen, I’m glad I was able to experience it.

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This was literally a once in a lifetime thing, and I was fortunate to be here when it happened.”

McDonald was not in Rome on the night of the Pope’s passing, as he and some friends had traveled to the famous Italian city of Florence. But the impact was felt very strongly there as well.

“The night before we left [for Florence] we heard on the news that he had been administered Last Rites, so I went down to St. Peter’s Square to join a growing crowd who were praying for him,” McDonald says.

“The night he died, we were in Florence, and I was out at dinner with a few friends.

But as we left the restaurant I heard every church bell in the city ringing, and since it was an odd time I knew that he had passed.”

When McDonald returned to Rome, he found a city packed with mourners and pilgrims looking to pay their respects to the Pontiff.

“The metro ride from the train station to our apartments was the most uncomfortable and crowded ride I had ever experienced,” McDonald says. “Despite the crowd of pilgrims, it didn’t help that everyone was carrying luggage.”

While the area immediately surrounding the Vatican went into mourning and slowed to a complete halt, according to McDonald the effects of the sudden influx of people were felt throughout Rome.

“Away from the Vatican, Rome continued on,” McDonald says, “but at a noticeably slower pace, as any city would with a massive intake of about four million people over a few days.

Public transit, our main form of transportation, was clogged beyond anything I thought possible.

It took one bus ride for me to discover that I could walk anywhere I needed to faster than any bus driver could make it.

And I refused to get on the subway system after our first ride back from Florence.

The week of his death and funeral I (and most everyone in my program) didn’t go out much except for class.”

McDonald did make one important exception to staying homebound: he joined the throngs wishing to see Pope John Paul’s body as he laid in rest at the Vatican.

“The Monday we got back from Florence I went to see the Pope’s body to pay my respects.

The words ‘mass of humanity,’ and ‘media frenzy,’ come to mind,” he said. “I originally planned to go over to St. Peter’s to get pictures, but saw on giant screens through the main street leading to the church that the Pope’s body was being moved from the Sistine Chapel to the cathedral, and somehow I ended up in line.

I got in line at 5:00 pm.

I got to the Cathedral to see the body at about 11:00 that night.

Imagine every line you’ve ever stood in at a movie, a grocery store, Six Flags and Disney World and put them all together.

Then multiply it by ten and you get the idea.

“There were television stations everywhere. Coming into the square just before the Vatican walls there was a makeshift platform about five stories high crammed with every bit of news equipment and personnel possible,” he says. ” But on the final approach to St. Peter’s Basillica, the mood changed.

The news cameras didn’t follow and the crowd became more

somber with each step.

Once inside the chuch, I think, is when most people became really upset.

I was only able to spend about five seconds in front of the body to pay my respects before the Italian police politely, but firmly, asked me to move on.

“It was a pretty moving experience,” McDonald says. “This is the only pope I have ever known.

For my 22 years he has always been around, so to see him lying immobile and cold was sobering.”

Despite it lasting six hours, McDonald said that not only was the wait worth it, but that it could have been even worse.

“The whole time I was in line I didn’t hear a word of English.


around me was Italian, so I think the mass of pilgrims had not yet

reached the line,” he says. “One [study abroad] group who decided to wait in line for

fourteen hours to see the body (apparently my six hour stint was short) didn’t make it to class.”

According to McDonald, all of Rome’ citizens seemed to struggle with the loss, devout Catholic or not.

“It was pretty much everyone that seemed to be hit by this,” he said. “Granted you didn’t see people in the streets break down and cry, but it was a loss to everyone.

A man who dedicated himself to a life of service, faith, and love and on such a public scale will be respected and missed by anyone, no matter their beliefs.”