Don the cassock and grab the ticket. Take the 35-minute walk in the cool of the morning through the peaceful streets of Rome. After passing through security, receive the good-morning salute from the Swiss guards, and head in the back door of St. Peter’s Basilica. From there, it’s an empty basilica with Morning Prayer said quietly before the tomb of St. John Paul II with only a few priests around.
Before divulging any more details, I should explain that as a part of our “work” here in Rome, the 60+ priests of the Casa Santa Maria have the privileged opportunity of being at the disposal of the Diocese of Rome for major liturgical events; okay, let’s be honest, it’s really only for the Pope! So today was one of those days; we got tapped to distribute Holy Communion for the Holy Father this morning. While it might seem a rather ho-hum kind of assignment, I wish I could share with you all the little moments I got to witness that made this a truly beautiful experience.
You’ve already got the beginning of the story; strangely, when 20 priests in cassocks walk through the streets of Rome, you’d think that people would just expect such things. It’s the center of the Catholic Church, after all, but no! We’re a scene! We walked past the lines waiting to enter St. Peter’s Square for the Mass with people stopping in the street to stare, take pictures (I’m not exaggerating), and, perhaps (though I doubt it) to marvel. Thus, we made our way to the back door and it was my first experience of a VERY quiet St. Peter’s Basilica.
The only people in the Basilica were the security guards and the 70+ priests, deacons, and seminarians coming to distribute Holy Communion for the Holy Father’s Mass. As we’d gotten there early, there was time to pray before the tomb of St. John Paul II, which, if you’ve ever been in St. Peter’s, you’ll know to be a very popular and thus very crowded site. This morning, there were 4 of us (priests) total praying at the tomb.
Words cannot describe the profound beauty that seems to sing in the silence of St. Peter’s Basilica. After waiting…and waiting…and waiting, we finally got our instructions and were lined up to proceed to our seats for the Mass. Well, while waiting to leave the Basilica, we happen to glance out the front doors, and who do we see, but His Holiness himself, only about 40 yards in front of us, going out ahead of us!
When we got out there, the scene was truly remarkable; after adjusting to the sunny piazza, we realized that Pope Francis had taken
his seat in front of the altar for a little program prior to the Mass, and was accompanied by Pope-Emeritus Benedict. You’ll notice Benedict XVI seated just to the right of the right pillar of the canopy. In my inexperience, I thought it rather normal to see Benedict XVI around for a Papal event, but I was quickly informed by the experienced priests that Benedict XVI, while living within Vatican City for the past several months, has only made a public appearance 2 other times since his resignation. This was apparently a big deal!
After watching both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis make their exit, we waited in eager expectation for the beginning of Mass. While Benedict XVI didn’t stick around for the Mass, someone had to celebrate the Mass, so I can only assume that Pope Francis lost the “Rock-Paper-Scissors” toss-up. By the way, the whole morning was meant to be an invitation for the “anziani” (the elderly) of the Church to spend time reflecting on their position in the world and in the Church with the Holy Father. There were some rather beautiful things said by His Holiness, and I encourage you to check out both his speech before the Mass and the homily during the Mass (when they become available in English, probably tomorrow). He had many beautiful things to say: a culture without a connection with the elderly is a culture that does not know it’s history and a culture that lacks a future! The elderly bring a wisdom that should not be lightly discarded. Further, the elderly should not be seen as a burden, but as privileged members of society to be loved in a particular way…he said it all much more eloquently than that.
Then came the moment for which we were there, to distribute Holy Communion, a beautiful moment of bringing an even more important Person to the people gathered for Mass, and that was relative chaos compared to the rest of the morning: trying to navigate through hoards of people, going to them because they really couldn’t move from their seats without causing LOTS of disruptive disorder.
While we were hoping the Holy Father would make another pass by the “pen” where we were, we got snubbed for a couple cardinals and a number of bishops. Then something about getting in the PopeMobile to greet the elderly in the piazza! Sheesh! Next time, Pope Francis, next time… I’ll have to console myself with some beautiful that will likely come out tomorrow from the Pope’s official photographers.
All that was followed by a mad dash out the back door of St. Peter’s to beat the crowd to the bus stop, but that was merely a passing hope. We got close and personal with the Italians on the bus, so much so that we decided to get off earlier than expected because walking was more comfortable than sweating in the bus-turned-sauna.
While waiting for Mass to begin this morning, the priest next to me, who has lived at the Casa for several years, said that after being the front row for a Papal event with Benedict XVI present, and sitting with the Holy Father directly in front of me (unobstructed) for the whole of Mass, it would only go downhill from there. We’ll see; I haven’t been disappointed yet!