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Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair said he considers it "a great blessing" to be in Rome on business during such a historic time.
In a telephone interview from his hotel, he also said he had a chance to pay his respects to Pope John Paul II yesterday at the Apostolic Palace, before the Pope's body was moved to St. Peter's Basilica for public viewing.
The bishop, who turns 56 next week, said he took a walk through the Vatican area last night and the lines for public viewing were enormous. The Associated Press estimated that 100,000 people were in line to pay their respects and that the basilica would stay open all night except for three hours for cleaning.
"It's been very moving for me, personally," Bishop Blair said. "The Holy Father was a great man, and I was privileged to have worked here a number of years. So it was a great blessing to be here."
The bishop arrived in Rome on Wednesday for his work on a Vatican committee that is updating the translation of the Sacramentary, or Roman missal, into English. The trip was scheduled a long time ago, he said, and while he originally was scheduled to leave Wednesday night he extended the trip until Saturday in order to attend Pope John Paul's funeral on Friday.
"I was in St. Peter's Square the night before he died, and there was a very large crowd there keeping vigil," Bishop Blair said. "And again, the night that he died, people flocked to St. Peter's Square. It was very moving, very prayerful."
Rome is almost a second home for the bishop, who lived there a total of 13 years as a student and as a Vatican staff member. He studied at the North American College, the Pontifical Gregorian University, and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, where he earned a doctorate in theology, and was a staff member of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See at the Vatican. He met with Pope John Paul II many times while working at the Vatican.
Mourners pray inside St. Peter's Basilica.
Bishop Blair said there was an extraordinary sense of tranquility and reverence in Rome this week as countless thousands mourned the Pope's passing.
"You could just feel it - the city was just subdued," he said. "To have that many people gather like that in an orderly and prayerful way, it was really something to behold."
Bishop Blair attended a private viewing of John Paul's body for church officials and government dignitaries in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, before the body was carried by 12 pallbearers in a procession to St. Peter's Basilica for public viewing.
"Even there [in the palace], there was a long line," Bishop Blair said, "but as a bishop I was able to get in, and I knelt down there beside his body and prayed a decade of the rosary."
Speaking softly and slowly, it was clear that kneeling beside the body of a leader he looked up to as "a spiritual father" was an emotional experience for Bishop Blair.
Even though the Pontiff had been in failing health for weeks and his death was not unexpected, it is difficult to accept the reality "when the time comes," Bishop Blair said - a feeling that, as a priest, he has seen many times in comforting grieving parishioners who have lost a loved one.
The Sacramentary translation committee meetings continue daily through tomorrow, Bishop Blair said, "which actually has been good, because it keeps you busy."
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