VATICAN CITY — One of our young people at Newman House recently asked me whether I ever cry. I tear up quite rarely, save for the liturgy, when it happens not rarely, and not just at funerals. Perhaps it is a grace God has given me, to feel on occasion the reality that the liturgy makes manifest.
Tears often mark an intense encounter with reality, and the liturgy opens to us the world that is most real. Whether grace or simple sentimentality, weepiness can be rather awkward for a priest, as it gets in the way of leading the worship and is rather distracting for the people.
It’s also a problem if you are doing live television. It happened again last Sunday, as I knew it would. I had the privilege of providing the commentary for EWTN’s broadcast of the beatification Mass for Blessed John Paul II.
I knew the tears would come from experience; they came when I did the same duty for Global TV at the World Youth Mass in Toronto, and for John Paul’s funeral Mass in Rome. On all three occasions, I was not the only one with moist eyes.
Looking out upon that immense crowd on Sunday, many of whom wept openly, it was evident that these tears were different. Indeed, on all three occasions the tears came for different reasons – rather like the tears that come to weepy priests during the high point of the Church’s liturgy, the sacred Triduum.
In 2002, at the World Youth Day Mass, Blessed John Paul addressed the sexual abuse crisis in his homily. He encouraged the young people to support those priests who were faithful and not to be discouraged. The young people responded with an immense ovation, which moved many priests — including me, ordained all of one week at that point — to tears.
Then the old man spoke of the wisdom of years: “Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, 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.”
Slumped over, voice growing weak, words slurred – it was the testimony of a man who suffered much, but had not lost hope. That brought tears — the tears of suffering made plain, of a man walking as he put it that day, “the royal road of the cross.”
In Rome three years later, the passion was complete, the tears of Good Friday gone, and it was time for the burial. At the end of the funeral Mass, the pallbearers lifted the casket of the late Holy Father, and turned it to salute the people one more time.
Beyond the College of Cardinals, beyond the largest assembly of world leaders ever, beyond the great arms of Bernini’s colonnade — the people returned the salute with cheers, and flags, and banners, and the chant of “Santo Subito” in a moment that seemed frozen in time.
In the broadcast booth we said nothing, not only because there were no words, but because we simply were unable to speak. These were tears of grief, but also of gratitude for a life magnificently lived and a sacrifice offered to the end.
The tears at the tomb belong to Holy Saturday, and this past Sunday it was the octave of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday. When Pope Benedict declared John Paul blessed, and his image, adorned by a halo, was unveiled from the central balcony of St. Peter’s, there were tears on most of the 1.5 million faces gathered.
Tears, and shouts, and cheers, and in the case of one of the producers on our broadcast set, literal jumping up and down for joy.
Tears of joy are rare, for pure joy is rather more rarely experienced. Yet on Sunday, the new blessed’s gift to the Church were those tears which anticipate the only tears one might weep in heaven.
The tears of a long-desired reunion; we had our beloved John Paul back with us. Six years ago we had bid farewell as he was carried into the basilica, and now he had returned, he was back again in the piazza, he was with us once again.
Those are the tears of Easter, the tears of the resurrection, the tears of realizing that the communion of saints is more real than the world that we see and hear and touch, more real even than all the graves in this world, this broken world, this vale of tears.