BERGAMO, Italy (CNS) -- Accompanied by Bishop Francesco Beschi of Bergamo
and escorted by both Italian and Vatican police officers, the glass coffin
containing the body of St. John XXIII left the Vatican early May 24 for a 370-mile drive to Bergamo.
The route taken for the trip north was kept secret for
When the procession reached Bergamo's central Vittorio
Veneto Square, Bishop Beschi told thousands of people gathered there that it
was "with great joy and emotion that I accompanied to our diocese, our
city, the urn with the mortal remains -- now relics -- of John XXIII, which
return for a few days to the land of his birth."
St. John, who opened the Second Vatican Council, was born Nov. 25, 1881, in Sotto il Monte, a town near
Bergamo. After his ordination as a priest and years of service in the Vatican
diplomatic corps, he was appointed patriarch of Venice in 1953. He was elected pope Oct. 28, 1958, and died five years later.
The pilgrimage with his remains was meant to mark the 60th
anniversary of his election and the 55th anniversary of his death.
Maria Calagari was in the square with her sister and some
friends to welcome St. John's remains.
"We are fortunate because we saw
him when he was pope, we saw him die and we just saw him now -- 55 years later
as a saint here in Bergamo," she said. "We are fortunate."
In connection with the pilgrimage of St. John's relics, Pope
Francis gave an interview to L'Eco
di Bergamo, the area's main daily newspaper, which is owned by the
Diocese of Bergamo.
In the interview, Pope Francis described St. John as "a
saint who did not know the word 'enemy,'" but "always sought what
would unite people."
For St. John, he said, "the church is called to serve
human beings, not just Catholics, and to defend always and everywhere the
rights of the human person and not just of the Catholic Church."
Pope Francis said the pilgrimage was meant to be "a
gift and an occasion" to renew one's faith and to remember the great pope.
It is a special opportunity for the elderly, the sick and the poor, who have
not been able to go to St. Peter's Basilica to pray at his tomb.
The visit to the Diocese of Bergamo included a stop at the
city's prison, where 180 prisoners -- including 35 Muslims -- asked permission
to enter the internal courtyard where a truck carrying the remains was to stop.
The prison yard was the first place in Bergamo where people
were allowed to touch the glass coffin. The prisoners were given a square of
either yellow or white fabric to touch to the glass; most of them touched the
glass with their hands, then used the fabric to wipe the glass clean.
Vincenza, one of the inmates, told the local television
station that it was amazing to have the saintly pope's remains stop in the
prison at the beginning of the pilgrimage "because usually, especially for
important events, prisoners are the last ones people think about."
From the prison, the relics were to be driven to the
diocesan seminary named after Pope John XXIII. The priests of the diocese were
to escort the remains to the cathedral later in the day.
Teens and young adults of the diocese planned a prayer vigil
in the cathedral May 25, and the remains were also to be present the next
morning as new priests were ordained for the diocese.
After a Mass with the poor May 27, the body was to be moved
to the hospital named after the late pope, then transferred to
the Shrine of St. John XXIII in Sotto il Monte.
Pilgrims can pray before the saint's remains at the shrine
until June 10, when Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, will
celebrate Mass and the body will be returned to the Vatican.
Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St. Peter's
Basilica, told Vatican Media that "this is the first time -- it's never
happened before -- that the remains of a pope make a return visit to his home,
to his roots."