I found a way to cope with my sadness about not being at the canonization. I will relive the past.
So, without further ado, my email home on Sunday, April 17, 2005, a week after experiencing the funeral of the only Pope I had ever known. The email is preserved in all its glory, every detail, every !!, for posterity. No names have been changed to protect the innocent.
There are some moments in your life that you will never forget. I came to study in Rome knowing that I would return a different person. I knew that I would experience things that would change my life forever. But I never expected to experience what I experienced last Thursday and Friday.
Around twenty of my classmates and I left our home in Rome Thursday afternoon around 2:30, equipped with blankets and bread, ready to camp out with the popes. We knew that our chances of getting into the piazza the next day for the Holy Father’s funeral was slim, as we were competing with millions of people, so we realized we had to get an early start. It’s not easy to travel around crowds with 20 people, so we soon realized (well, some of us realized and then took charge and ordered everyone else around. I think I’m practicing for when I’m first lady) that we would have to settle down as a group and then have a few people go scout things out and come back and report. So we parked ourselves on Via Conciliazione, the main road that heads right into St. Peter’s Square. If we could manage to stay there all night, we had prime spots for the rush the next morning. But we had no illusions that they would let us stay there all night, since we had heard reports that they were closing the piazza and Via C at 10pm. So we needed to find out more before we committed ourselves to spots that would be taken from us in 7 hours. My roommate from freshman year, Marisa White (who’s an amazing girl — the world will hear from her someday, I guarantee – so remember that name) and I went off to investigate.
It didn’t take us long to realize that no one really knew what was going on. We asked someone from every different military or police unit (“Hey, there’s a guy in a green uniform with a black beret – we haven’t asked someone who looks like that yet!”) and all the guys were more than willing to try their English out on the two of us. Sorry, guys, we don’t want to talk to you… we just want information. Which they had none of. So we dropped them pretty quickly and attempted to get to the Swiss Guards, the official guards of the Vatican. Our first try was unsuccessful because you needed a special pass to even get over to where they were standing. So we walked all the way around St. Peter’s and the surrounding streets, make detours when necessary — and stopping to get gelato on the way — and managed to get to the Swiss Guards on the other side, at the Sant’Anna gate.
I wish I could somehow describe the atmosphere and the crowds. There were people everywhere. People coming and going from who knows where, pilgrims everywhere with sleeping bags and backpacks, large groups of people sitting and laying on the ground around entrances where they hoped maybe they could get into the piazza in the morning. But we didn’t want to hope — we wanted to know. And if we were going to camp out all night, we were going to sit ourselves in a place we were pretty confident about. So Marisa went and asked to Swiss Guards (now, don’t think we’re Swiss Guard crazy. Okay, I am a little, but Marisa isn’t. M: “Joannie, they’re all either old and fat or short with glasses.” J: “But they know karate to kill!” M: “Joannie, look at them. Look past the uniform.” J: “Well, it IS a nice uniform…” so we were really just going to the Guards to get info, I promise.) and they wouldn’t say if Via C was closing — the piazza was for sure at 1o, but that didn’t really matter because no one was allowed in the piazza except the people standing in line to pay their respects, and that line had been cut off the night before. But the Swiss Guard said that we seemed to have pretty good spots. So we returned to the group not really knowing anything more than we had when we started. (but heck, we had fun.) We were even getting conflicting responses about if the Mass was inside or out! It was a combination of 1) security reasons keeping everyone either not talking or not knowing and 2) the Italians never really knowing what’s going on anyway.
There were lots of guards on Via C around barricades halfway down the street, but they were pretty much letting everyone come and go around the barricades. There were also barricades at the very end of the street (far from St. Peter’s) that were a little restricted with their flow, and then there were barricades on the other end, right by St Peter’s Square, that were completely closed. (This is really hard to try to explain) Via C was split into three aisles. The side aisles were the usual sidewalks of the street with businesses and things. A lot of businesses stayed open, so people from the group wandered and got gelato and stuff. (most of us had brought food with us — I was armed with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (thanks, Mom and Dad!) and peanut butter M&Ms (thanks again!) and an apple.) The middle aisle was what used to be the line to view the body, but now the line was cut off, so we wondered where everyone that was walking up was going… because the road stayed fairly busy with pilgrims, the majority of them Polish. It turned out that they were all going and camping up closer to the entrance of the piazza, by the barricades that were closed. The red and white flags continued to joyfully stream past as the Polish joined us with their own blankets and dinner. I have never seen so many Polish flags. It was amazing.
We passed the time talking and studying and I called Mom from a pay phone. One of the neatest parts of the evening were the priests that wandered through the crowds or sat against buildings with their purple stoles, ready to hear confessions. The grace that was flowing that afternoon was almost visible. It was so beautiful! You got such a sense that these men were truly men of God, ready to do His work at every moment! They could have been doing a hundred other things at that moment — but they were ready to hear confessions. I have to say, one of the most memorable confessions of my life came that night — I was just standing on Via C talking to the priest — holy cow, it was incredible! That whole night was one of those experiences that seems natural while you’re doing it, and then you pause a second and think, “What in the world?! We did that? That’s amazing!!” We SLEPT OUTSIDE OF ST.PETER’S!! I went to confession on the street! It’s mind boggling. I wish I could describe it.
Around 5 or so — I kind of lost track of time — our president of Christendom, Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, his wife, and our college chaplain, Father Heisler, found us. They suggested we at least move a little closer to the piazza, so we moved camp a little farther down the road and ended up all gathering around a huge supply of bottled waters — some people even built seats and beds with all the bottled water. I was really impressed with how prepared Rome was for this. They had bottled water out the wazoo. They only problem was that it was all bubbly water. Marisa and I were offered water when we were wandering around, and we asked if they had any “natural” and the guy said no, but then his assistant and yes and pulled two non-bubbly bottles out of nowhere — but then as we were walking away the guy started getting mad at her — haha, we think she probably gave us his water!
We were also camped out right near a first-aid type station, which was really nice because they had tons of blankets for everyone, and they kept passing them out — since we were right there next to them, every once and while the nun would come over (she didn’t speak any English) and just cover up the guys while they were sleeping and stuff. It was so cute!
So the O’Donnells and Father Heisler talked to us for a long time, then left to go find dinner — Mrs. O’Donnell was convincing Dr. O’Donnell to stay all night, so she had to keep him busy and moving all the time so he wouldn’t get fed up and leave! They suggested we go find their son, Niall, who was camped out on the other side of the colonnade of St. Peter’s. So we sent two people, Maris and John O’Herron, to go scout things out before we moved.
As a side note, the O’Donnells were SO nice to us. He’s on the Pontifical Council for the Family, so needless to say, they had a lot of other things they could be doing and a lot of other people they could be seeing. But they took time out to come visit us and make sure we were okay. It was unlike anything a larger university would ever experience. Your president and his wife try to get to know you by name and seek you out to make sure you’re okay? And then after dinner they came back and brought us cookies! It was SO sweet. They came back three times throughout the night (once at around 2 or 3 and they woke me up – it was cute.)
Well, we waited for awhile for John and Marisa, and we were sending Peter to go find them when he came back with the report that now Via C was blocked off and no one could get on it.. so that meant John and Marisa were stuck outside. We were in the middle of a huge elaborate plan which included Peter leaving and somehow bribing the guard with a cigarette to let him back in (you have to understanding how Italian police work) when Marisa and John appeared out of breath … they had snuck back in one gate, then ran and pleaded with other guards to make it back to us. So we decided to stay where we were — if they let us stay, we were in an even better spot since we were ahead of all the other crowds. The only other people left on Via C were us, hundreds of Polish pilgrims now sleeping in rows, some American seminarians, and journalists, who had access to the road all night.
As the evening wore on, we passed the time studying, sleeping, and getting interviewed by several radio and television stations. The road became fairly deserted and we wrapped up in our blankets to keep warm. While one wouldn’t usually call a concrete stretch of a thousand Polish pilgrims, a handful of American college students, and a hundred roaming reporters “deserted,” it was empty compared to the other side of the barricades at the end of the road, where pilgrims continued to gather. Throughout the night, we were reports that the line was stretching for kilometers.
There were several hilarious episodes through the night, memories I’ll never forget, but a particularly funny one happened because of my obsession with Shepard Smith. I really wanted to meet him, since he’s my favorite Fox newscaster, and I knew he was around the Vatican somewhere. John O’Herron had been wandering around up Via C by the Polish pilgrims and came back and told me he saw a Fox guy — he thought maybe a local guy from DC. So he went with me so I could ask the guy where Shepard Smith was (by this time, my obsession had become the joke of the group). Well, he said he didn’t want to be interviewed because he had botched his last interview a few days earlier (to be an American in Rome during these times means you get interviewed constantly. It’s crazy.) so I had to go talk to them instead. Well, I chickened out. When I returned to the group, Marisa got mad and said I had to do it. So she went back with me, and I went and asked the guy if he was from Fox, blah blah blah. It turns out that he was from the DC Fox station, and he got really excited (he was a spastic fellow) when he heard we went to school in VA, and asked if there was anyone in our group from VA. So me, being the devious person I am, told him that we had a guy from VA — John O’Herron. He said he would catch up with us later, when he found his cameraman (he was lugging his own camera around – it was pretty funny) and we went back and told John he was going to interview him, and John freaked out and went off by himself to get himself ready for it. What made matters worse was that John and his family actually watch their local Fox station at night for the very purpose of making fun of the “googly” news guys … and once we talked to this guy, we could see why — he was crazy!! … so it was pretty hard for him to get through the interview without laughing and without us cracking up… but he did it, and he did a very good job. Then he called home and told his family to make sure and watch the “googly” news because he would be on.
The night wore on … I slept a little, got interviewed by a German radio station and a Boston TV station … we talked with the North American seminarians who were camping near us … it was a pretty fun night. Dr. O’Donnell and his wife came back — they camped out all night, too! : ) There were a few false alarms — “I think they’re opening the piazza!” so we’d pack up our stuff and head up there, only to find no sign of them opening the piazza anytime soon.
We headed up to stand in line by the gates around 6, I think, so by the time the sun rose we were lined up with our Polish friends and a few American seminarians, waiting for the piazza to open. Before the piazza opened, however, the barricades at the end of the road opened, and more pilgrims — the majority Polish — began to stream onto Via C to join us in the wait. We were released around seven o’clock, and people started to head toward the piazza. We were reluctant to leave our spots near the barricades on Via C, though, because we were right by huge televisions and there was no indication whether people were actually being allowed into the piazza, or just around it. There were rumors that due to security, people wouldn’t be let in the actual piazza, and when we asked a guard as everyone was streaming in, he told us they weren’t letting people in the piazza at all, just around it. So we waited by our TVs, because we knew if we weren’t allowed in the piazza there was no way we were going to see the TVs in the piazza and we wouldn’t really know what was going on. Eventually, though, my friend Andy went and scoped things out, and he saw they were letting people in — so we headed up there. So if you watched TV and were surprised there weren’t more people in the pizza, that’s why — thousands of people were told they weren’t even being let into the piazza, so they didn’t want to leave Via C with the TV screens, and it was impossible to tell from Via C if the piazza was open or not — it’s hard to comprehend, but everything is so mammoth and far away that while Via C and St. Peter’s look close, they aren’t. So it’s really hard to tell what’s going on, even though it’s right in front of you, because it’s actually pretty far away.
The last part of that paragraph was a horror in grammar, but I’ll continue. I’m sure most of you saw the funeral or clips of it on TV. I don’t need to say that it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Plus, not only was I blessed to be in the piazza for the Holy Father’s funeral, I was blessed to be able to experience it while being surrounded by people from Wadowice, the Holy Father’s hometown. While the entire piazza was filled with the Holy Father’s countrymen, the people that surrounded me were truly his people. I will always remember how joyful his people were. They cried and grieved, but they rejoiced, knowing their friend had followed Christ and had fought the good fight. When we clapped for the Holy Father at the end of Mass, their clapping drowned out the helicopters that hovered overhead. I will never forget those people. They had hitchhiked to Rome, slept on the concrete, and afterward, stood in the rain. They were there to say thank you to a man that was a son of their country and a father to the world.
The image of the pall-bearers when they turned and lifted his coffin up for all to see before they went inside will be forever burned into my mind. It was amazing.
Tomorrow, the conclave begins, and we begin our vigil in the square, awaiting the white smoke. Most of the pilgrims have left the city, and the Church will pause until the Holy Spirit will make the new pope known. As I walked through the Square the day after the funeral, I was initially surprised that nothing seemed different. There was no physical change since the Holy Father passed away except that the shutters to his bedroom window remained closed. It reminded me, however, that the Church continues. We said goodbye to a Holy Father that history will never forget, but the Church’s invisible head — Christ — is still with His Bride. I haven’t been down to see the Holy Father’s tomb yet because the lines are still very, very long. But I’ll make it down there soon.
I wish I had a cell phone and could start calling people the minute the smoke appeared! Such exciting times… it’s hard to write down. IT’s hard to even speak about. All the experiences have been so intimate and personal, that they’re hard to talk about. Not that I don’t WANT to talk about them, but they’re impossible to talk about because they’re impossible to voice or understand unless you experienced them. But I continue to try.