Sunday morning we had tickets to the canonization of three saints, which would occur during Mass with the Holy Father in St. Peter’s Square. There are different ways to approach Mass with the Holy Father – or any gathering with him, for that matter. When you’re with a tour group, you follow your leader and you settle for a nice aisle seat towards the back. You’re limited as to what you can do, since there are a lot of you, and you’d rather at least be close to him once – when he’s driving around the square before Mass. So you settle for an aisle. If you’re by yourself, you can position yourself in the security line super early, ward off elbows and people trying to cut in line, and run for it when the security line opens, trying to get as close as possible to the front. This approach requires psyching yourself, a large helping of patience, a disregard for personal space, and the sacrament of confession afterwards.
While we were heading home from the concert the night before, Megan and I decided we just weren’t up for this latter approach. We had been extremely blessed to be very close to the Holy Father that evening, and we weren’t going to get closer the next morning, regardless of how early we woke up. We could wake up super early, miss breakfast at the hotel, and fight the crowds… or we could sleep in a bit, eat breakfast at 7, hop on a bus, and just see what happened when we got to the Piazza.
We found out at breakfast the next morning that there were pilgrims staying at our hotel. We had already run into pilgrims for the canonization when we were in Assisi. Since the saints were unknown to us, it was neat to see pilgrims coming from the dioceses and try to put ourselves in their shoes. Had they been waiting years and years for this moment? Had they been praying to the saints for specific intentions? Did they know someone who had been personally touched by a miracle or an answered prayer?
We later found out that one of the new saints, Father Luigi Guanella, had an American connection — the miracle needed for sainthood had been the cure of a young man from Philadelphia, who had been in a coma after a rollerblading accident. There was a large pilgrim group from Philadelphia, and I believe the young man, William Glisson Jr., carried up the gifts at Mass.
As Megan and I walked to the bus stop, the birds were acting particularly crazy. Huge groups of them were swooping around us, and while we had seen them almost every day, that morning they were particularly numerous and particularly crazy. There were thousands of them, all swooping and squawking. I don’t want to throw Megan under the bus, but even she was freaking out. Their noise was deafening and I eventually just took off running — across the bridge, across the island, across the other bridge, and across the street– as far as I could get from the crazy flocks of birds over the Tiber. Ugh. I know you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Thousands of starlings. Ugh, ugh, ugh. Seriously, watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-mCuFYfJdI and tell me you wouldn’t be freaked out too.
We saw buses of pilgrims passing us by as we walked to the bus stop and waited for the bus, but I kept my competitive spirit in check. There’s an animal instinct that comes upon you when you find yourself in a crowded line, when you’ve been waiting for a long time, and when there’s even the thought that someone might get in before you. But I kept reminding myself of the blessings from the night before and wasn’t too bothered by the fact that thousands of people might get into the square before us.
There are generally several entrances into the square for outdoor events such as this one — there is the straight shot up Via Conciliazione, into the square from the east, and the majority of the pilgrims were there. Buses dropped them off on Via Conciliazione and they walked up and waited in the long queue (aka massive crowd of people). Since there are no metal detectors there, the security guards posted at those entrances have wands. I knew we were better off avoiding these entrances. So we walked around the south side of the colonnade to the same area where we had waited the previous evening. There were quite a few people waiting at that gate, too, but as we approached and assessed our options, the gates opened… so Megan and I and a few Sisters jumped in Italian-style and joined in the rush.
Don’t judge until you’ve been over there. It’s a survival tactic, I promise.
After going through security, we followed the crowd into the first section. We were able to get a spot only a couple seats from the middle aisle, and we were the second to last row of the first section. Not bad for not waking up early. It wasn’t the closest I’ve ever been (that would be when I was in the front row of an audience with my parents and godparents), but it was definitely the most room I’ve ever had at a Papal event for the least amount of effort. The row of chairs behind us wasn’t right behind us — you could have probably fit another row of chairs behind us and that row. So we didn’t have people breathing down our necks. The guy next to Megan seemed to be saving a seat for someone who never came — so Megan had an extra seat to the right of us, and then the Indian sister sitting next to me moved over at one point, so I had an extra seat on my left too. We happened to be sitting behind some seminarians from the North American College and the students studying in Rome from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, too! (It always helps to have Americans near you because they share your value of personal space.) I wrote in my journal later “I’ve never been less crowded at a Papal Mass with less stress.”
The stress would come later at Mass, in the form of an insane man and birds. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was cold before Mass. To make the time pass, I wrote some postcards and we read about the new saints (the Vatican hands out the nicest worship aids at all their liturgies- cute little white books- and these included biographies of the saints in several languages.)
If you know me well, you’ll also know that I was passing the time by watching the Vatican guards. We saw several of our old friends from the night before, including the guy that was staring at me across the aisle during the concert. (He had become our favorite because after the Holy Father had walked by, he seemed visibly touched and even had tears in his eyes.)
This other nice man was working our section, but I couldn’t think of a good question to go ask him.
Then I saw his left hand and stopped trying to think of one. (Megan told me that they probably wore wedding rings just to keep weirdos like me away.)
But my friend from the night before wasn’t wearing a ring. Do you think he remembered me?
Just so you think I wasn’t only taking pictures of the guards, I was also taking pictures of all of the statues on the top of St. Peter’s. Here’s St. James for my brother, who likes this statue because he has a little hat strapped to his back.
I also took pictures documenting the cleaning and restoration of the colonnade. Doesn’t it look so nice? Especially since they’re painting over that mustard color with white.
As soon as the Holy Father came out, so did the sun! I’ve learned it’s hard to take pictures of a moving Pope — so I took a video instead. That way I didn’t even have to look through my camera — I could take it all in and still capture the moment.
(You’ll see an older woman across the middle aisle from us wearing a white baseball cap — she’s the ultimate Pope groupie. She’s everywhere he is. I’m pretty sure my friend Trena had a nickname for her. We saw her at the concert the night before and I remembered Trena telling me about her. Then, low and behold, she was there the next day!)
Mass was beautiful — I had never been to a canonization before, although I had watched John Paul II’s on television. There is the reading of the biographies of the saints, the procession with the relics, the litany of the saints– all before the Gloria!
Mass continued as usual. At some point – maybe during the offertory?- there was some commotion to the right of us. I looked over in the crowd but didn’t notice anything. (If you remember, there was a medical emergency the night before at the concert, so I suppose Megan and I were getting used to commotion.) Then I noticed one of the University of St. Thomas guys kept looking over, and I finally noticed what he was looking at– some guards were emerging on top of the colonnade … because there was a man standing on the edge!
It took a moment to sink in. There are usually press and guards up on the colonnade, but this man was clearly neither of those, nor was he standing behind the wall — he was right on the edge, with nothing between him and the ground!
A bald-headed guard that is seen a lot with the Holy Father (later reports said it was the Holy Father’s bodyguard, but that’s the secular press, so who knows who he is) soon emerged and leaned over the wall, clearly trying to talk to the guy down. But the man seemed content to just stand there. At one point it looked like he was writing something. Then he started reading a book.
The photographers on the other side of the colonnade had a hundred lenses pointed at him. We were distracted. He had clearly achieved part of his goal. I tried to ignore him, but it was hard to do. What if he jumped? They had cleared the space underneath him, and it didn’t seem like he could hurt anyone but himself. But it’s hard to tell yourself that in the moment. If he had a gun, Megan and I would be directly in line of fire. It may sound dramatic, but I’m pretty sure I said an act of contrition.
He kept reading his book, and then I noticed that it was smoking. I never thought that it was a Bible, although looking back, I suppose it should have occurred to me right away. What else would an insane man burn in St. Peter’s Square? Probably not The Grapes of Wrath.
At Communion time, he yelled something. Ironically, we found out later that he asked, “Pope, where is your Christ?” Timing is everything. He’s on the altar, insane man.
I’m pretty sure the Holy Father had no idea that an insane person was disrupting his Mass.
We all went to Communion as usual — but as if an insane man on the colonnade wasn’t enough distraction and stress, the pigeons and starlings started circling us and swooping down. I’m sure Megan thought I was going to crawl under my hard gray plastic chair and wither away into the cobblestones. I almost did. I put my head down on my lap and prayed that it would soon all be over.
After Communion a bishop appeared and was talking to the man. He still seemed very content to stand up there, although he no longer had his burning book (we later found out he threw it down into the crowd). I’m not sure if it was originally planned for the Holy Father to leave via the Popemobile as he came, but it was pretty obvious that he was not going to leave that way with the insane man up there. At the end of Mass, we looked back up there and the man was being led away by guards. I guess he climbed back over the wall willingly. His moment of fame was over.
We felt sorry for the guards — especially for our friends from the night before, who were working the crowd right underneath him.
For video and more of the story: Huffington Post: Man Disrupts Mass; Telegraph UK: Protestor climbs up Apostolic Palace During Pope’s Mass (a little misleading, since I’m not sure he was really protesting anything)
It definitely made for one of the most unusual Masses I’ve ever attended.
After Mass, Megan and I walked as far as the colonnade before we decided we would wait for the crowds to pass — so we stood off to the side in a little niche and let the people stream past us. Standing next to us was the young boy, priest, and woman who had carried the relics of the saints in procession to the Holy Father! They were celebrities– everyone wanted their pictures with them. It was really cute.
I have no idea what their story is, nor will I ever know. That’s the way Rome life is. You experience these things and things happen all around you, but the outside world ends up knowing more than you do.
We knew traffic would be crazy, so we decided to walk back, taking our time to leisurely stroll through Trastevere. We stopped to get pizza (I got sausage and broccoli — it was delicious), then headed back to the house to rest. It had been quite a morning.