- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE — President Bush yesterday expressed awe at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, calling the ceremony a high point of his presidency that helped strengthen his faith in God.

Mr. Bush, the first American president to attend a papal funeral, said what struck him “most intensely was the final scene of the plain-looking casket … being carried and held up for the seal to be seen, and then the sun pouring out.

“This will be one of the highlights of my presidency, to have been at this great ceremony,” he told reporters afterward. “And it helped strengthen my faith.”

Mr. Bush, who is sometimes accused of seeing the world in black and white, praised the pope’s “moral clarity.”

“I would define Pope John Paul II as a clear thinker who was like a rock,” he said aboard Air Force One. “And tides of moral relativism kind of washed around him, but he stood strong as a rock.”

Mr. Bush was among scores of world leaders who gathered for what he called “perhaps the largest funeral in the history of mankind.” After entering St. Peter’s Basilica through a back door, the president said he was “amazed by the size of the crowd” he beheld after emerging on the grand staircase overlooking St. Peter’s Square. The square was packed with hundreds of thousands of mourners.

“I knew the ceremony today would be majestic, but I didn’t realize how moved I would be by the service itself, by the beautiful music,” he marveled.

“I was struck — as an aside — struck by the fact that the sound was so clear in this huge facility,” he added. “It was as if we were inside the cathedral listening; and the voices were so pure.”

Mr. Bush shook hands with French President Jacques Chirac and other world leaders as he arrived at the three-hour Mass. He was accompanied by first lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush.

“Because of all the sights and sounds and majesty and colors,” he said, “I felt more like a spectator than a participant.”

By contrast, the president described his Wednesday visit to the pope’s wake inside the basilica as more intimate.

“Obviously, we were surrounded by a crowd at the wake, but when I was kneeling there, I felt — I’m trying to think of the right word,” he began. ” ‘Alone’ isn’t the right word, because I was aware of people, but felt much more in touch with a spirit.

“I … very much felt at peace there, and was prayerful.”

Mr. Bush was asked by a reporter to react to Mr. Clinton’s remark Wednesday that the pope “may have a mixed legacy.” The president sounded eager to distance himself from the comment, which angered some conservatives.

“Pope John Paul II will have a clear legacy of peace, compassion and a strong legacy of setting a clear moral tone,” he said. “A clear and excellent legacy.”

Mr. Bush said his relationship with the pope “will strengthen my faith and my belief.” A self-described born-again Christian, the president spoke expansively about his religious devotion.

“A walk in faith constantly confronts doubt, as faith becomes more mature and you constantly confront, you know, questions,” he said. “My faith is strong. The Bible talks about, you’ve got to constantly stay in touch with the Word of God in order to help you on the walk.”

Later in his 47-minute exchange with reporters in Air Force One’s conference room, Mr. Bush emphasized that he does not have fundamental doubts about his faith.

“There is no doubt in my mind there is a living God and no doubt in my mind that the Lord Christ was sent by the Almighty — no doubt in my mind about that,” he said. “When I’m talking about doubts, I’m talking about the doubts that an individual struggles with in his or her life.”

Mr. Bush, who traded in his dark funeral suit for sweat pants and a warm-up jacket during his flight from Rome to his ranch in Texas, sounded genuinely thrilled by his first Latin Mass.

“I’m really glad I came,” he said. “There was never any question I would come.”

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