YOU'D HAVE THOUGHT that a head of state was being mourned in Manayunk this past week.

A thousand people descended upon St. John the Baptist Church on Thursday evening to pay respects to the family of Shane Montgomery during a four-hour viewing that went into overtime to accommodate the grieving.

Police, who had to direct heavy traffic around the majestic Rector Street church, were back in action yesterday morning to manage the hordes attending the second viewing for Shane at 9 a.m., followed by Mass.

But by 8:30 a.m., the line of mourners was already out the door. Each somberly and patiently waited to comfort Shane's parents, Karen and Kevin, brother Tom and reams of aunts, uncles and cousins - each resembling a different version of the next. (As one of Shane's relatives told me, "I'm related to half of Roxborough; the other half I went to school with.")

The mourners were Shane's lifelong neighbors, who scoured the town when he went missing. His old classmates from Roman Catholic High and new ones from West Chester University, their faces stunned with grief. Members of the Philadelphia Police Marine Unit, who tried desperately to find Shane. And so many weeping others who clung to Shane's family, determined, it seemed, to hug him back into their lives.

The parade ended only when a priest announced that Mass was to begin and asked us to squeeze tighter into the old pews to accommodate everyone needing a seat.

And so we scrunched up our shoulders and shoved jackets and pocketbooks under the kneelers. And then we collided in the aisles when it was time to receive Holy Communion as the soloist sang, "I have loved you with an everlasting love, I have called you, and you are mine."

All this, for a 21-year-old whose laid-back life had barely begun to kick into grown-up gear.

All this, for a funny young man with crazy red hair, sweet green eyes and a narrow frame that hadn't yet broadened to do justice to the huge Celtic cross tattoo he'd inked on his shoulder to proclaim his Irish pride.

Why Shane? I thought, as we cried during eulogies given by his broken-hearted brother and strong, dear mother. Why so many priests - I lost count at five - on the altar for that young man? Why so many strangers joining Shane's shattered family and friends on a morning whose frigid temperature would be unpleasant enough to brave for a loved one, let alone a person we'd never met?

The answer, of course, is why not Shane? Doesn't every young person who dies so "swiftly, cruelly and tragically," to quote from Msgr. Kevin Lawrence's homily, deserve such fanfare? Doesn't every life ended too soon deserve crowds enormous enough to reflect the enormity of the potential that has been lost?

Terribly, the reason so many of us knew of Shane at all was because of the way his life ended. He went missing in the early hours of Thanksgiving after partying with friends. Had his body been found the next day, it would've barely made a tragic headline, and then Shane would've been gone from public consciousness.

But Shane's body was not recovered from the Schuylkill for 38 days. During those weeks, when his remarkable kin, strong neighborhood and devoted church family joined together to find him, their howl of agony was loud enough to bring the larger Philadelphia community stampeding forward to help.

It is unnatural for parents to lose a child. It is a horror to not know where he is. The public recognized that and responded as though the family's nightmare was their own. That powerful, collective act of love and compassion shows what we are capable of when we know people are hurting and don't ignore our innate urge to help.

In his homily, Msgr. Lawrence read from a letter written by a stranger to Shane, after his body was found.

"In a world of uncertainty, anger, confusion and greed," the man wrote, "you unknowingly created a moment of love and solidarity for so many. People loved a little more, sympathized a little more. We valued and cherished each other a little more.

"Nothing will ever take away the sadness but know that your life had purpose for me and for so many . . . You changed us. You reminded us how to take care of each other."

Shane's loved ones also showed us how to care for each other. Over 38 days, the city got to see what a strong, faithful, loyal and loving family looks like. They drew people to them, just as I know so many other good families in the city would draw us to them if we knew their hurt.

How do we hear their howls of agony, too, when we don't have 38 days to let them sink in? I don't know, but Shane's family has helped me, and maybe others, see that it's a question that deserves answering.

Because the love that has carried Shane's family is surely strong enough to carry others who grieve, too.

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly