- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

Yesterday, 4 a.m. was a godly hour.

More than 60 Catholics rose in the early morning darkness and came together at Paul VI Catholic School in Fairfax to watch a live TV broadcast of Pope John Paul II’s funeral in Vatican City.

“He was the greatest pope of all time,” said Michael Kane, 18, a senior at Paul VI. About half of those in attendance were students at the school and would still have a full day of classes ahead of them.

“I believe it’s important to show that we have spiritual enthusiasm,” said Brad McNiff, 18, also a senior. “Getting a few hours’ sleep is a small sacrifice compared to what he did for us.”

Students, parents and teachers at the 1,200-student school stumbled into the cafeteria for bagels and coffee about 3:45 a.m.

At 4:06 a.m., the Rev. Mike Kuhn, the school’s chaplain and assistant principal, gathered a few straggling students into the auditorium for the funeral.

A 6-by-9-foot screen was on the stage. A spotlight highlighted a framed and shrouded picture of John Paul. A single candle burned on a table.

When the screen showed the pope’s plain cypress casket being placed in front of the altar in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, the group settled into their seats and did not stir or speak for nearly three hours.

There were only two disturbances. The first was when a man fell asleep, then dropped his cup of coffee when he awoke. The second, at 6:38 a.m., was when the casket was picked up and displayed before being carried into St. Peter’s Basilica.

Someone in the auditorium began to clap, and the others followed, joining the roaring throng in Rome.

Then, it was time for school or work.

“I feel like I’m going to crash around 12:30,” said Drake Johnson, 14, a freshman who had no regrets about losing sleep to watch the funeral. “It seemed like the right thing to do. He’d probably would have gotten up for our funeral if we were important.”

When Mass was celebrated, Bruce Walter, 57, of Burke, leaned on the chair in front of him and folded his hands in prayer. He and his wife, Kathleen, cried during the service.

“I found it very moving,” said Mr. Walter, whose youngest daughter will be the fourth of his children to graduate from Paul VI next month. “Look around at this school and you say, ‘He led by example.’ The pope led the church, and he has emphasized education and giving all these years. That’s what is emphasized here.”

The Fairfax school was one of several venues in the region where people could celebrate the pope’s memory.

At least 500 persons went to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Northeast. More than 9,000 have visited the site since Monday, two days after the pope died, said center spokesman Sandy Peeler.

Visitors have filled about 18 condolence books, which include entries in more than 90 languages.

“They’re writing very personal stories,” Ms. Peeler said.

“I hope my mother meets you in heaven” was among the most poignant, she said.

Mary Kintu and Esther Drakes, nurses from the nearby National Rehabilitation Hospital, came from their graveyard shift to pay their respects.

“Since we couldn’t go to Rome, this is the next best thing to say farewell,” said Mrs. Kintu, 63, from Uganda. “We would have loved to have been in Rome.”

“Thank you so much for all you did for humanity,” Mrs. Kintu wrote in one of the books, which will be sent to the Vatican. “We hope your reward is really big. Please pray for us so that one day we’ll be able to see you again with God, Mary and all the Saints.”

The center will continuously replay the broadcast of the funeral today and tomorrow from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“It doesn’t even matter what religion you are,” said Chris Rogers of Ocean City, N.J. “Tears are coming to my eyes.”

Visitors adorned an outdoor statue of John Paul II with flowers, candles and rosary beads. At the base of the statue was a baseball inscribed with the words, “Gracias Padre, From all the children you have blessed.”

Ms. Peeler said people have taken trains from Rhode Island, driven cars from the Midwest and flown from as far as California to visit the center during the pontiff’s final days.

“It’s been a wonderful place for people to come and connect with the pope,” she said. “If they couldn’t have gone to Rome, they came here and felt a connection.”

Gary Emerling contributed to this report.

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