As Rome prepares for the impact of an estimated million-strong crowd at tomorrow's canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, yesterday was a day dominated by the memories of some of those who worked closely with both men.
It is no surprise to meet many of John Paul II's closest collaborators in Rome this weekend, but it came as a pleasant shock to see 98-year-old Cardinal Loris Capovilla, the former private secretary to John XXIII, answer questions from the media via a television link in a Vatican news conference last night.
Dr Joaquín Navarro-Valls, for 24 years the senior spokesman for John Paul II, told us he had often asked himself what was it that made Karol Wojtyla a "saint". Perhaps three things – his ability to pray hard, to work hard and to be always good-humoured.
Constant good cheer
Dr Navarro-Valls said one of the saddest aspects of John Paul II's last years was the effect his Parkinson's disease had on his face, freezing the facial muscles and leaving the pope with no obvious expression. He was almost always good-humoured, even towards the end but it did not show. Dr Navarro-Valls recalled how, at this period, one visiting head of state as a matter of courtesy congratulated the pope, telling him he was looking well.
John Paul looked at him wryly and said: “Do you not think I see myself on TV, I know exactly how [bad] I look?”
Dr Navarro-Valls said “the most eloquent image” of John Paul II was as a man of prayer. When he prayed, he “took off, he was having a conversation with someone else”. One day, as he watched John Paul in prayer in his private chapel in the Apostolic Palace, he noticed the pope kept pulling bits of paper out of his prayer stool. Later, Dr Navarro-Valls discovered each piece of paper contained the name of someone who had written to him, asking him to pray for them.
Prayer was fundamental for him. During his two-week summer stays in Val d’Aosta in the summer of 1992, just after he had been operated on for colon cancer, he worried his security detail by getting up at 3am to pray and staying up all night. Dr Navarro-Valls called him a man “who never lost a minute but who was never in a hurry”.
Also remembering John Paul II yesterday was his former private secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who also recalled him as a man of intense prayer. Cardinal Dziwisz, who served alongside John Paul for 39 years, recalled how on the May 1981 day when Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca almost killed him in an assassination attempt in St Peter's Square, the pope, bleeding and suffering, had immediately begun to pray in the ambulance, praying also for the then unknown gunman. Cardinal Dziwisz called him a "marked man", someone who had been afflicted with suffering throughout his entire life, from the early loss of his parents through to the illnesses of his last years.
Cardinal Capovilla had an unusual line on the sainthood of both popes, saying they “were two children” because saints are those who in some way “remain infants”. Calling himself “confused, moved and intimidated”, the old cardinal said that both had been “great men”.