Father Sullivan goes to Rome

... and takes us all with him.

An interview with the SilverStringers

Father John Sullivan had recently been appointed Pastor at the St. Mary's of the Annunciation Parish in Melrose, in December 2004. It had been an exciting and hectic year for the the young prelate and he was planning a ten day leisurely vacation of sightseeing and relaxation in and around Rome, Italy. He bought the round-trip tickets in January for a flight scheduled for Wednesday, April 6 with arrival in Rome the following day. The death of Pope John Paul II on April 2 and the ensuing ceremonies on April 7 and April 8 served to alter Father John's plans dramatically - perhaps miraculously. Here is his story as told to SilverStringers Kay McCarte, Don Norris and Jim Driscoll.

JD: Father, we understand you had a remarkable journey to Rome with many interesting twists and turns. Would you tell us about it?

"Well, what had taken place was a priest friend, myself and two married couples were going over to Italy for a vacation. They were going for three weeks and I was going for ten days, so I bought these tickets back in January. During this period, the Pope became very ill and finally died on Saturday, April 2nd.

"It wasn't until Sunday that I started thinking to myself - they said four to six days for the funeral and I knew I was flying over Wednesday night and was arriving in Rome Thursday morning at 10:30 a.m. If they have the funeral on Thursday, I can't go, but day six will be Friday - they aren't going to wait that long, they are going to bury him as soon as they can - and then on Monday morning it was announced that the funeral will be Friday at 10:00 a.m. and I'm thinking 'I'm going!'

"I was supposed to fly into Rome, then get a train up to Tuscany where my friends were, and they were going to pick me up there on Thursday. We had bought our tickets in January so the coinciding of the event of the Pope's death and my flying into Rome right at the time of the funeral - I kind of thought like, okay, there's definitely some Providence - at least I'll be there. I called my friend in Italy and said, 'Look, I'm not coming up Thursday as planned, I'm sticking around Rome - the Pope is being buried and I'm going to try to go to the funeral,' and he said, 'Sully, there's no way you're going to be able to get in - there's four million people,' and I said, 'Well, I'm going to try.'

"We had a school Mass that morning at 10 o'clock - you know there are 400 boys and girls in our grammar school, so I said to them, 'Look, I've never asked you to pray for me for anything, so I'm asking you now. It's a little self-centered, so maybe it's not the proper time or thing to pray for, but I have a request. I want you all to pray - two things - pray that I can go to the Pope's funeral on Friday.' And they are like 'Okay, Yeah, we can do that' and I said, 'Secondly, who do you think I want you to pray to?' and a couple of them said 'Pope John Paul the Second' and I was like 'Exactly! You pray to him - does anyone know his name?' and a couple of the kids said his name was Karol Wojtyla and I said 'Pray to him and say that we want Fr. Sullivan to go to your funeral. I would really appreciate that.'  

"Also, we have about 90 youngsters in the tenth grade here in the parish - who were going to be confirmed in about another week and a half - so I went into the Confirmation class that Sunday night and made the exact same request. I said, 'Look, I want you to pray'. I figured - why not? I don't really ask for anything like this, so -- I had seen the Pope probably about seven times on various occasions.  

KM: Where?

""I saw him twice in Rome, before I was ordained 14 years ago - just before I was ordained a priest. And then I saw him in Canada, I think twice when I was in college. Then I saw him in New York City in Central Park back in 1995, he did a stop-in and had a Mass for about 800,000 people, and we just like said, 'Oh, let's go,' and we drove down and went to the Mass there. I went to Paris, France in 1997 for World Youth Day, and then Toronto in 2002, so I can count seven times. He had been such an influence upon me in my life personally.  

"I didn't have a place to stay, but if I had to sleep on the street, I would. At World Youth Day we ended up sleeping in mud puddles, anyway - it's never comfortable accommodations - you have like a rock at your head and a root at your back, or you're sleeping on a track. I figured everyone else would be sleeping on the streets so I was perfectly happy to do that.

"Necessity demands and you just kind of roll with it. I had a couple of people come up to me and say, 'I have a brother who is studying in Rome and you can stay with him, if you want', and then another woman said, 'Look I have cousins that live in the city of Rome, if you need a place to stay, call me and I can get you a place,' so all of a sudden they started coming forward --

JD: So you had to choose.

Yes, but would you believe a half hour later, Father Steve Donohoe, a classmate of mine who helps out here on the weekends -  he calls me and says, 'Sully, I heard you are going to Rome, do you need a place to stay?'  I'm like, I can't even believe you are asking me that, I sure do, and he said, 'Look, I just went on Orbitz.com and I got tickets, I have a hotel one mile west of Vatican City, but the only trouble is that it has only a single twin bed.'  I said, Steve, I'll sleep on the door knob - I don't care - I'll sleep on the floor, that's fine - I got shelter.  

"So I was kind of psyched - at least I had a place to stay. I then flew over to Rome. When I arrived at the Leonardo DiVinci Airport, I see Father Brian Beshong going by - he is the secretary to Bishop Sean O'Malley. I knew that Bishop Sean was flying out that afternoon - he was on a Lufthansa flight and I was on Alitalia - he had a layover in Munich and I had a layover in Milan - what was the chance of my being right there? I said, Where's the Bishop? He said, 'Right over there waiting for his luggage.' I walk over and say, 'Hi, Bishop Sean, how are you?' He says, 'How are you, John?' I say good and he says 'We are having a Mass at 6:30 p.m. at the North American College if you want to join us and then we are going out for some dinner.' So, I'm like, Sure, provide a meal, okay, I'll show up.

"I'm thinking I would love to go wait in line to see the Pope's body, but they are talking 10-12 hours or even more. As I walked along the Via Della Conchione I look down and the crowd was kind of moving and the lines didn't look too bad.  

"This is Thursday afternoon - I walked over - it's about 2:30 - 3:00 o'clock and I'm thinking 'all right I have about three hours and then I have to go up for Mass at the North American College but maybe I'll just see how fast the lines move.' I got in line and it's moving and I estimated from how it was moving along the buildings, probably a two and a half hour wait. All right, I'll stay.

"I stayed in line and it was just wall to wall, like you were jammed in there, and there were people from every country, Polish, German, Italian, everyone was waving their flags; there were some people from France, and they are just all around me, people from Nigeria, so it was kind of like World Youth Day revisited. So I only had to wait about 3 1/2 hours. But also, I was jet-lagged, I had only about an hour's sleep, my back was killing me - I wanted to lay down in the street and go to sleep. But I stayed in line and got up into the Basilica and then that's when I realized I was finally here. While I was waiting in line I was praying for everybody that I knew - all the different parishioners, family and people who had asked me to pray for them when I got over there.

"I'm realizing that not many people are going to have this opportunity to view the Pope's body and I felt that whether or not I get into the funeral tomorrow at least I can do this. It was like a river of people going up the main aisle and I'm praying Hail Mary and I'm just thinking of different people. And then, you are in there and (snap of fingers) then it was over. But I got about 10-15 feet from him and you actually really see that death was starting to take over, because I don't know if he was embalmed or not - you could see his hands were starting to kind of wither, his cheeks were really sunk in and you could see kind of a dark grayish black, you know, the decomposition of the body - that's death, but you could still recognize him for who he was.

DN: What were your thoughts when you got that close? -- in other words, you are going through and praying for all your friends and now, all of a sudden, you are confronted with --

"I felt like I was viewing him for everyone I know, like I was there for everybody. Like, I carried everybody with me, as I was in there. And then, because they said something like four million people went by his body over the five days, which is unbelieveable. I was weeping as I went up the center aisle - he was like a grandfather, a real fatherly character - you know, I miss him.

KM: How much time did you have as you passed the immediate area.

"Ten seconds. We had to keep moving. You know, it's funny, these two young men, seminarians from Mexico, came up when I was eating lunch that day and they asked me where I was from and I said 'Boston'. They said they were from Mexico City and asked if I was going to wait in line and I said, 'I may or may not.' 'You know how long we waited, Father? 11 1/2 hours - 11 1/2 hours and we passed by the Holy Father for only ten seconds. But you know what, Father, I am satisfied. I am happy and full of joy, you know what that is, Father? That is Faith.' And I'm like, 'You're right.' He said, 'Anybody else -- it does not make sense - 11 1/2 hours you wait, you have 10 seconds to view - 11 1/2 hours - ten seconds - Why?  I don't understand'. They were just so happy that they had the opportunity to see the Holy Father. So I consider myself lucky to have only had to wait 3 1/2 hours.

"I was able to view his body and then we met for dinner that night I ended up getting back late - Kay (McCarte) would find that really hard to believe - I'm never on time for anything. I came in and it was about twenty past seven and we were supposed to meet at 6:30 p.m. at the North American College, but by that time I just said, "Look, I can say Mass anytime, I can't see the Pope's body, so -- I get there at 7:20 p.m. and literally a minute later Bishop Sean comes in with Father Brian and said, 'Oh, good, you're still here. We just got back.' And I was, 'Yeah, I was waiting for a long time.' They said, 'Oh, we're really sorry' and I said 'I'm just kidding, I just got here myself.' So we went up and said Mass and then we went out to dinner. A couple of other young priests joined us and we just basically said, 'Okay, Bishop Sean, how are we going to ride your coattails here. How are we going to get into the Pope's funeral tomorrow?'

"He said, 'You know what. I've no idea, I've never done this before so why don't we just do this. Why don't we meet at 8:30 in the morning at the North American College and from there we'll walk over to St. Peter's Basilica, which is about a seven minute walk and we'll just see what happens.' So we got all our vestments on and then we start walking over. This bishop, with his white beard, has his purple cassock and white surplice and a purple shoulder cape and there were five of us trailing behind him. We're walking through these tunnels - so you can actually travel underground and get over to St. Peter's Basilica more easily.

"So we arrive at the first checkpoint and we are just outside St. Peter's Basilica and the first official sees us and he says, 'No, no, no, no, you can't enter here,' and he turns and sees the Bishop and he's like, 'Oh, m'exusi excellensia - I didn't see you,' and the Bishop says, 'These men are with me' and he says, 'Okay, go ahead' and we are, like, 'YES!'  So we got through the first checkpoint - we come up to the second one and he's like --

DN: Are these the --?


KM: Not the Swiss Guards?

"No, no, the Federal Police - I guess they have the policia which is just the local Roman police, then the carbinieri are like the Federal police and they have more authority and there were a couple of them - they just had security everywhere -- kind of like National Guard Units - so we come up to the second one and he's like, 'Absolutely not'- this is all in Italian - I speak Spanish, so I'm getting bits and pieces and I can kind of understand what they are saying. 'Absolutely not, there is no way these men are getting in - if you have a ticket you can come in. Bishop, do you have a ticket?' 'Yes' - He and his secretary had a ticket and he leaned into the guy and said 'These five men are with me and they are coming with me.' The guy just kind of said, 'OK, go ahead,' so we got through the second one and we were, 'Oh, great.'

"We got to the third one - it was not going to happen - Now we are in the back of the Basilica right about to go into the sacristy and the Bishop went in with his secretary. At least we got this far - there's the four of us now. We go over to another gate area and we can see all of the other priests that are concelebrating, which is what we were hoping to do - to basically celebrate with the bishops and cardinals at the Pope's funeral. We see them about 20 yards away and the guards are like, 'Absolutely not - no way, no way - you don't have a ticket you don't get in. North American security,' that's what he said. We're like, 'Oh, meaning like the United States.'  President Bush was there, Bill Clinton and the older George Bush - three presidents, two hundred heads of state coming to this - it was like Fort Knox, you know, you couldn't get in. Now we are a little bit bummed out, but at least we were in the vicinity of the Piazza, right where the columns are where they come out, so we said why don't we just weave our way through the crowd and we'll just keep walking until somebody stops us. So we started doing that.

"You know what, everyone else is doing the exact same thing - everybody is trying to finagle their way through and so we start weaving our way through the Piazza, the Plaza, out in front. If you've ever seen pictures of St. Peter's Square there are the colonnades that look like arms that are embracing the world and in the middle is this Egyptian Obelisk in the middle of the square. So we start weaving our way through and security is looking right through us - we're walking by and nobody is saying anything and I'm like, how come they're not saying anything.  

"We keep walking by and walking by and keep going this way and soon we are in the middle of the Square and now we are in front of the Obelisk and we walk all the way up to the edge - they have everything all sectioned off - and we are up about six or eight people from the front - it's jammed inside there now, but we're dead center and I'm thinking, 'I cannot believe I'm finally here - never had a ticket - I can't believe I am actually in this Piazza - it's unbelieveable! Thank you, God.' It's as if I knew --

JD: What could you see in front of you at this time - could you see the Altar?

"Absolutely. It's hard - I'm really poor with distances so I can't say exactly, literally, I was dead center in the middle of the Piazza, so I can see everything. Now just ahead of me, about maybe 40-50 yards is that section with all the concelebrating priests that we couldn't make it into - I really wanted to be up there, but that's okay, we're back here and, again, there are people from all over - flags from Korea, a lot of Polish, obviously, the Pope was a native of Poland, and we are just talking to a few people - now it's about 9:15 a.m. and the Mass starts at 10 o'clock. Some of the people we were talking to got up at three o'clock in the morning, ate breakfast and were there at 4 a.m. We came strolling in around 9 - 9:15 and here we are right in the middle of the spectacle.

"This is where the strange part takes place - we are standing there, Mass begins, now there are two screens up in front, one in front of St. Peter and one in front of St. Paul (these huge statues 40-50 feet high) but you look at them and they just look like a regular statue until you go up and stand next to it. These are massive TV screens, so you can really get a great view of everything, close-up shots and everything like that. So, as Mass begins, at the end of the second reading, just before the Alleluia, there's a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and there's this priest in a simple black cassock, probably in his late 50's, early 60's, white hair, very Roman looking face, short hair. He says to me - all I heard was something about - (in Italian) 'Are you concelebrating priests?' and I said, 'Si' and he said (in Italian) 'come with me' and I'm saying, 'let's go' to the other three priests I was with. So he takes us and starts snaking his way ---

DN. Did he mean all four of you or did he mean just you?

"All four of us - he kind of pointed to the four of us - First I thought I wonder if we are in trouble, but how does he know we don't have tickets? We are jammed - it's shoulder to shoulder - so we finally weave our way back through this area and we get up through the security - the security guard is like, 'No, no way - no one's coming out' and whatever this priest said - I don't know what he said to him - but it took less than five seconds - I just call him the Monsignor - he just said something with authority and the guard says 'Okay, passe.' I felt like saying what did you say to him? I didn't say anything but I just went by him and said, 'Monsignori, gracia tanti' -- you know, thank you very much. He indicated something like 'move, go ahead' and all of a sudden we find ourselves, the four of us, taking the corner and we start walking up toward the front.

DN: Where are you now?

"Now we are walking up - you see they section everything up - they have everything in corrals, basically, in St. Peter's Square - have you ever seen photos? I have a magazine that has a photo of it and I can actually point out where I am - I can see my head.

KM: But you are in the Square?

"Yes, so we are in the Square, but now we are moving up closer, we are walking through the security people and it's like we were invisible - they looked right through us. That's what I am saying, it was weird, weird-mysterious. We are walking up through and we finally get up to the front area where all the concelebrating priests are and I said to my companions, 'Look, get over to the middle aisle as close as you can,' because I wanted to be right in the middle. There were four sections - we walked past the first, then the second and then the third and we walk up to the fourth, and would you believe - there's a row with five empty chairs.  

"And we just walked right in and we just stood there and then we look at each other, and I said, in Spanish, 'The Providence of God.' They all said the exact same thing - I just can't believe it. Now, it happened this quickly, the Alleluia began before the Gospel when the mysterious priest had tapped me on the shoulder. By the time the Alleluia finished, we were standing at our chairs. I mean the Alleluia was really long.

"It was so - and we were thinking well, who is this monsignor, why did he pick us out of the entire crowd? You really felt as it was happening that this is something way beyond me and because once I got up to the security I turned around and I didn't see the monsignor anymore. He was gone. I don't know where he came from, where he went and why he chose us. I never saw him again. It was mysterious.

"And so I finally got up there and now I'm crying for joy - the privilege that I had - I just felt privileged - that's was my biggest word - privileged. Because now here I am and now again, all those people I carried with me, my family, my friends, all the people in the parish, and, in fact, I ended up saying I took the whole City of Melrose with me.  

"Everyone in my daily life I took with me so that they could be present here at the Pope's funeral. We concelebrated Mass - here's the Pope's body, it wasn't that far away, maybe 100 yards, and then Cardinal Ratzinger was right up behind him and all the Cardinals in their red vestments all up along there - he had all the world leaders over there - we saw the President and Mrs. Bush come out, we saw a couple of others, some of the European presidents and prime ministers and all the world religious leaders and all the ecumenical leaders over here and all the bishops over here - it was just really like this world event and I got to go - I'm in the middle of it. We've got the best seats in the house - I have a chair to sit down on after the readings and I was just so absolutely privileged.

JD: How did they handle the Communions?

"They had, I'm going to guess about 200 priests with ciboria with the hosts they had consecrated and then, at the Lamb of God, they came out and just started walking through - there were two or three who came into our section to distribute Communion so we were able to receive.  

JD: You eventually stayed there a while or did you come back right then?

"We stuck around and ended up walking in the Basilica afterwards, myself and two of the other priests because we figured, some of the Italian priests have been through this before so they took their vestments off and they were gone. We were in no rush. We were sitting in the middle of the Piazza - the whole thing's over - all the Polish people are swaying their flags and singing songs and no one is really leaving so we just waited a while and the gate opened up ahead of us so we just started walking and, again it was the same sort of thing, the Swiss Guards are going, 'No, no, nobody comes up here, everybody has to stay down here' and my two other priest friends just waited until he turned his head and just started walking so I just got up behind them. All the security people, with the little ear things, were still looking right through us.

DN: Where are you now?

"We are walking into the Basilica, St. Peter's. Right after the Pope, they just brought his body in - about ten minutes later we're walking in - we get inside the Basilica - there's nobody in there, except all the bishops and cardinals and all the world leaders and us.  So we end up going in and we see President Uri Yeshenko, the new President of the Ukraine who was just elected this past fall - remember the one who got poisoned - I didn't realize that he had married an American woman and so we saw him kneeling and praying. We saw Cardinal Avery Dulles come by and all of these officials and so we are just like people watching.  

"We knelt at St. Peter's tomb and we went up and congratulated President Yeshenko and then his wife said, 'Oh, where are you from?'  We said, 'Boston.' She goes, 'I was just in Boston two days ago,' I said, 'I remember - the day I was flying out.' She said 'We got a Profiles of Courage Award from the Kennedys, because they had come through and helped a young girl who was burned over in the Ukraine. And the day I was flying out, their picture was in the paper and I realized, oh yes, that's the guy that got poisoned.

"And you see President Assad from Syria and these other people you recognize, but you're not sure of, like who's that fellow - he looks familiar. That's (New York Governoror) George Pataki, and on and on.

DN: And where was security?

"You didn't need it after that because no one could get into the Basilica.

"We became like invisible - there were two scripture passages that I thought of: one was a parable where Jesus talks about getting invited to a wedding feast. He says don't take the place of honor, in case someone more important than you comes in. As soon as the Monsignor comes up and taps me on the shoulder and starts taking me up, I thought, 'Come up higher, my friend.' You know, that's what He says at the end of the parable - go to the lowest place and then the bridegroom will say 'come up higher my friend.' I thought that immediately, and then the second thing was St. Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles, where he is being released from prison by the angels, and the doors are all opening like of their own accord and the guards are asleep or they don't see him - I felt exactly like that. It was crazy.

JD: Then you came home you came home fairly quickly after that?

"No, I had another eight days, so I took a train on Saturday morning up to Tuscany, and just like getting a bus, I had to get a bus ride over to the Statione Termine, which is the big train station in Rome, we are standing in the armpits of everybody - it was just jammed with everybody like a lot of Polish people, Germans, these two German ladies let me stand in their area and, I mean, just everyone from all over Europe and all over the world. I went up to Tuscany and I was able to say Mass at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi on Sunday, which was really cool.

DN: How did you do that?

"It's just one of those things. There's a little booth with a little Fransican Friar sitting in the booth, so I have my passport with me and inside I have what's called a Concelebrate card, all written in Latin, so it can be read by all different countries, which basically says I'm a priest in good standing in the Archdiocese of Boston to allow me to say Mass if it's possible. So I just went up to him and I said, 'Bongiorno' and he said 'Bongiorno' and I said Parle Anglaise?"  He said, 'No' so I said 'Espanol?' and he said 'Si.'  

"I start speaking to him in Spanish and said I was a priest from Boston and I would like to be able to say Mass and he's like, 'Okay, Father, hold on one second.' And he calls this guy and he gets on the phone and he says, 'Okay, where's your people?' There's about eight people that I was eating lunch with, and I said they are down at the tomb of St. Francis. He says, 'Okay, get them, pronto. You got 30 minutes because we have another Mass coming in at five o'clock - it's four o'clock - I want you done by 4:30.' I said, 'No problem.'

"I did it in about 33 minutes; we were done at 4:35 - it was beautiful because the last time I was in that Basilica I wasn't a priest - 14 years ago, before I was ordained - I did a week retreat in Assisi and I was ordained a deacon later in the month of January and then I was ordained a priest in June.

"And then we went to other places, Sienna, I went to where St. Catherine is buried and then I came home - this is where the Marathon comes in. I flew home last Friday, so I'm home Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night and then Monday, April 18, I ran the Boston Marathon.

KM: Not only that, he comes in Friday night, he has the Mass of Anointing on Saturday morning at 11, and a wedding at 5:30 p.m. an 11:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday; in between he has to go into Boston and get his official racing number. He never had a chance to get jetlag.

JD: You never had a chance to practice?

"Most of the training is done a month before the Marathon - you just run 3 - 5 miles around, just small short runs, so I ran a couple of times over in Italy you know, up through the Tuscan hills, just simple runs to stay loose.

JD: Your time was -

Four hours and thirty-five minutes. People have been looking for my name in the Melrose Free Press, but it's not because I always register from my family home in Medford. So, I'm under Medford. Yes, 4:35, so I took 11 minutes off from last year's time.

DN: How many times have you done this?

"Boston? Just twice. I've done five marathons all together.

KM: You have to realize, he was still up in the air, he was flying, he wasn't hitting the ground.

"Yes, and it was hot that day.

DN: And you were two feet above the ground.

KM: Maybe six inches, by that time.

"Yes. It started hitting me this weekend - I'm waking up every morning really exhausted, which tends to happen after. I usually wake up and my legs feel really heavy and my body just feels - I call them aftershocks. When I'm doing my training, I'm doing long runs - I always find it's a week to ten days afterwards when I really feel tired.  

JD: Well, Father, thank you, that was exciting even to listen to; and if we can capture that in word form it will be fun.

We are having a school Mass for the kids next week for Ascension Thursday, so I want to tell them a little bit about it and thank them for their prayers --

Km: Tell them - It worked.

May 6, 2005


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