by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi
In my study, where I spend the greater part of my day, on one of the shelves of my bookcase standing amidst a lifetime of favorite books, is a photograph of John Paul II and myself embracing; an embrace recognized only by a brushing of foreheads. I can’t hide the fact that for me that instant captured by the camera represents for me much more than just a memory. It is a picture which captures the profound sense of a spiritual understanding, of a sentiment of human similarity made evident from the first encounter with John Paul II. It was June 24, 1993. I was making an official visit as President of the Counsel of Ministers (Italian). Seated in front of one another, the visit lasted much longer than was anticipated by protocol. That first encounter or initial chat session took place in a manner which I immediately noted had something special about it.
The Pope certainly underlined this by pointing out a few coincidences: the same year of birth and the same baptismal name, which placed both of us – these were his words which he repeated many times – under the protection of Saint Charles Borromeo. A few years later, in 1999, another coincidence was added: the election to the Presidency of the Republic on May 13th, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima and anniversary of the attack on the Holy Father in St. Peter’s Square.
In the quiet of my study, my thoughts often return to the unforgettable Pontif, “my big brother”, as I jokingly referred to him on account of the few months which separated us. I often gaze upon that embrace to ask for counsel, comfort, encouragement, and inner peace.
I consider this relationship with the Polish Pope as one of life’s most precious gifts. A certain propriety hides the more profound feelings and refrains me from breaking the veil of intimacy. At the same time however, it doesn’t restrict the desire to share the richness of that gift.
During the course of my presidential mandate, I always felt the closeness of John Paul II. I perceived his support: his paternal solicitude as Shepherd, his wise guidance and courageous and prophetic words, the message he communicated to the men and women of our times with unfailing determination. After the traditional address which the President of the Italian Republic is expected to make at the end of every year, the Holy Father was among the first to call. I remember with unchanged emotion his call of December 31, 2002. The television viewing had just ended when he called to say, “Thank you, it was very moving.” The next day, at Angelus, he renewed his gratitude publically.
The topic of my address had been “good government” – which presupposes stability, respect for the institutions and laws, moral public and private behavior, the overcoming of “factions and divisions for the greater good of Italy, so that Italians might be of one will”. This last part I had declared recalling the words of a priest who in the aftermath of the unification of Italy, had rendered honor to the martyrs of Belfiore. I had launched a wish for a greater sense of solidarity and spirit of cooperation. I had made a wish which drew strength from the words of the Pope pronounced shortly earlier at Montecitorio. He had in fact exhorted Italy to “better express her characteristic gifts.. to increase her solidarity and internal cohesion.”
Solidarity and cohesion, cornerstone of the national community; solidarity and cohesion, aspiration and commitment of all men of good will – even of the multitude of people who on every latitude and of every religious belief had sent the need to lend ear to the words of John Paul II. They were words of the Shepherd of the Universal Church, words of a passionate defender of the human person’s dignity and value.
John Paul II’s total dedication to the wellbeing of every single man and woman in the entire human family is sealed by his persistent and unconditional pursuit for peace. For the sake of peace, he had used all of his strength; his physical aspect, already threatened by illness, seemed to find its prior energy when he invoked the gift of peace, when he lifted his cry against war, against the irrationality of wars which materializes in mysterium iniquitatis.
I am certain that the memory of the encounter at Assisi remains indelibly in the minds and hearts of many. Certainly the remembrance of that day is impressed within me when I drew near to place the lamp upon the tripod. With emotion, the Head of the Italian State accepted the unusual and unexpected invitation given him by the Holy Father.
That gesture made by the representatives of various religious confessions, of placing the lamps, was not only particularly symbolic and suggestive, but it was also symbolized a desire to overcome, beyond any difficulty or contrasting division, those ‘impediments’ which obstacle the walk of humanity, that despite everything, aspires to the true Good in the depth of its being. That humanity in which it is observed – as stated by the Pope- “the eloquent convergence among the verses of Ovidio: I see the best and yet I turn towards the worst, and the cry of Saint Paul: We know in fact that the law is spiritual, but I am a being of flesh… I don’t accomplish the good that I want to, but I do the evil that I hate.”(1)
In the spirit of Assisi as also at the meeting with the youth at Tor Vergata (during World Youth Day 2000), there is left a sign of John Paul II – of his extraordinary intelligence which the mediation of the heart enriches and nurtures. Intelligence and heart – not antagonistic categories but ‘complementary’ virtues, were often the object of conversation around the frugal dining table of the Pope, where my wife and I had breakfast after the Mass which he celebrated – until his health allowed it – in his private chapel. Along with us at the Mass were also some religious Sisters and Monsignor Stanislaw. It is hard for me to find the words to express the richness and spiritual depth of those encounters – both extraordinary and simple at the same time. Afterwards, when he could no longer celebrate the Mass, he would invite us occasionally for lunch. By that time, the Pope communicated nearly only with nods of his head, but the intensity of our communication was nevertheless not lacking. I find in my diary: Sunday, July 7, 2003 – in the car to the Vatican, Porta Sant’Anna. Monsignor Stanislaw welcomes us – to the apartment of the Holy Father. His Holiness arrives and as always, receives us with a warm embrace. In the dining room. His Holiness speaks little – his eyes are half closed, but he listens with attention and intervenes with brief phrases especially when topics near to the ‘heart’ are mentioned rather than those of the ‘intellect’ … when I tell him that I think of him often, his reaction is immediate: “and I have you here”, he says, drawing his right hand towards his heart accompanied by a penetrating look.
It was only this look, this glance, which had been spared from the devastating effects of the illness and suffering. Up to the end, that penetrating look had sustained him – even intensified, if possible – his strength and sense of courage which it emanated. A strength in tact, the same which he had revealed in a late afternoon of October 1978, when Karol Wojtyla, already John Paul II – as André Frossard goes on to describe – “appeared for the first time on the steps of St Peter’s with a large crucifix planted in front of himself as if it were a sword to wield with two hands. When his first words, “Be not afraid” sounded throughout the Square, in that same instant, everyone understood that something had moved in heaven, and that after the man of good will who had opened the Council, after the great spiritual soul who had brought it to conclusion, and after a sweet and transitory intermission like the passing of a dove, God had sent us a witness.”(1)
A Witness of which the world has need more than ever before. The world which John Paul II saw as “profoundly marked by sin and by death… but which at the same time is a redeemed world; a world where a love more powerful than sin and death has been made manifest. This love is always present and does not cease to work.”
Karol Wojtyła testified to this truth in every instant of his life, up to the end when “the destination of his days on earth” was drawing close. In those last hours, the entire world gathered around the Holy Father; around he who meditating upon death had said, “Even if man does not choose his own death, yet, by choosing his own way of life, chooses in this perspective, in a certain sense also his own death. Therefore death becomes the most perfect affirmation of life and of the choice made by man.”(2)
And the Spirit, giver of life, seemed to breathe upon that crowd that had gathered in St. Peter’s Square, ruffling and upsetting Cardinals’ mantels and garbs. It settled only after having turned the pages of the Gospel which lay upon the Pope’s casket.
Carlo Azeglio Ciampi
President of the Republic of Italy (1999-2006)
(1) “Non abbiate paura”: André Frossard dialoga con Giovanni Paolo II, Rusconi,1983
(2) K.Wojtyla Segno di contraddizione, Milano, Vita e Pensiero, 1977