Shortly after we got to France, the Pope began drawing his last breaths, and two days later he passed away. The only English language television we get is CNN, which has been running long marathons of nothing but papal coverage, so we took part in the vigil leading up to his death and have been watching the reaction not only of the television commentors but also of the people of France.
My understanding, flawed as it may be, of France is that while the people here love their Catholicism, they are not especially devout in observing it. However, because of recent events, the cathedrals have been packed with worshippers, some of them seemingly prostrate with grief. We sat through a mass at Notre Dame the night before the Pope passed away where young and old came to pray for his soul - all we understood of the sermon was that they kept mentioning "pape" and "vingt sept ans" and "morte", but the focus was clear. The next day, we saw the faithful at Sacre Coeur literally prostrate with grief, kneeling in front of large white-and-gold banners of his face. We wrote in the books they had their for people to express their wishes and rememberances of the holy father. There was a veritable river of candles left around them, with hardly room to walk.
While neither of us is Catholic, we're both secretly fascinated with the Catholic church and particularly with the machinations of the Vatican and the way they choose their Popes, so this has been a unique time to be glued to CNN and in a culture where a cathedral square is still one of the most essential hearts of the city. We're watching closely everything that's happening, and taking part in it a little bit.
My friend Sid and I attended a papal mass in Rome in 2000. While neither of us subscribe to that faith, we both felt moved in a strange way by his presence; the overwhelming sensation we got watching him was of a deeply good (and at that time very sick) man. I'm not completely naive about the harm that some of his policies have done in the world, but I think he meant to do good, which is a somewhat rare thing among world leaders of such power. Unfashionable as it may be to say so, I was sorry to see him go.
I'll be very interested in seeing who is chosen as his successor.