Friday, October 25, 2013

Visiting Pope Francis with Catholic pilgrims

Pope Francis on Saint Peter's Square
(more photos of Pope Francis here)
This past week i worked as the Tour Leader for fourteen American Catholic Pilgrims through special Catholic sites around Italy. This culminated with a trip to Rome and Vatican City. Our Vatican experience had three parts: 1. celebration of holy mass in the catacombs of Saint Peter's Basilica, lead by the group's own priest who had organized their pilgrimage (this was beautiful and very special for them), 2. a tourist visit to The Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel (the group found this to be a frustrating, nearly pointless experience, due to overcrowding); and 3. a visit to Pope Francis' General Audience on Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013.
i have been working in Rome tourism since 2004. i also attended General Audiences under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in previous years. i was always impressed how they would draw tens of thousands of spectators almost every Wednesday.

But going to see Pope Francis is a different thing all together.

On the way to pick up the group at their hotel, i passed Saint Peter's Square in a taxi at 6am. i was SHOCKED to find piles and piles of crowds already. The security line to enter the southern side of the Square was already all the way out to via Gregorio VII and a couple hundred yards up that road! The group was scheduled to depart from their hotel at 7am, arriving by 7.30, THREE HOURS before the event's scheduled beginning, and already i was worried we wouldn't even make it onto the square! (It turns out Francis is attracting 10x more people to his audiences than i observed for his predecessors!)

Crowd gathered to see Pope Francis on Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City

We had even acquired tickets for seats at the audience through the North American Bishop's Association. But, they assured us, tens of thousands more tickets were printed than actually existed seats - we found this out the hard way!

When we arrived at about 7.30am, the crowd was already thick around Saint Peter's Square and up via Concilliazione. That was right about the time the authorities opened the Square and began slowly allowing people through the (symbolic) security check. We didn't make it onto the square until about 9am, after an hour and a half of waiting in shockingly aggressive "line," and by that time the seats were long gone. Even the square itself was nearly full. It would eventually fill, and become only a portion of the much larger crowd surrounding it. 

Saint Peter's Square holds 250,000 people when standing-room only. Today the capacity was a little less as seats were added, but then the crowd gushed wide around the Square too, making the total surely well over that quarter-million mark.

For a long time we waited, standing still in relative silence just waiting for something to happen. Feet got sore, backs cramped, but there we stood, waiting for the Pope.

The event began with a Monsignor reading out a list of groups that had registered to have themselves announced at the audience. My little group of 14 Americans had them and their local parish announced as in attendance at the event, the first time i've ever been people that had this honor.
Pope Francis in front of jumbo screen on Saint Peter's Square

Then, interrupting these announcements (which had been going on for more than an hour, in at least 4 different languages so far), Pope Francis silently glided onto the scene. He was in the crowd, riding in his Popemobile, with a camera man accompanying him, broadcasting his actions and whereabouts on the big screens set up for us around Saint Peter's Square. And he continued moving around the crowd, often stopping to shake hands and kiss babies, and at one point even got down out of the car to kiss the cheek of an elderly woman who was way in the back of the crowd.

When the Pope came close, within about 3 meters, i was surprised by what i felt. i was expecting the simple fun of seeing a celebrity in person, as it was when i encountered Pope Benedict or even (the very aged) John Paul II. But there was something more this time - i actually felt emotionally moved. Some deep sensation i cannot put better words to than just "a really good feeling" rushed through me. When i shared this with the Salesian Catholic priest i was attending the audience with he replied, "I think we are in the presence of a future saint," and i did not find it hard to believe.

When Pope Francis eventually made his way to the stage, he ceremoniously gave the sign of the cross, there was a Gospel reading in many different languages, including English, and then the Pope gave a homily (which i have translated into English.). He spoke in Italian, but i have translated that day's homily into English and you can read it here. (The Vatican publishes a transcript of the homily, and gives an English-language summary, but no translation.) Then the Pope welcomed people from all over the world by individual country. And finally he gave the Papal blessing to the crowd, after having it explained that he intended this blessing to also go onto any objects we were carrying and out to anyone that we in the audience were also praying for.

The biggest difference i noticed from previous Popes to Francis, is that the crowd has definitely and obviously transformed from a tourist crowd to a pilgrim one instead. The people's intention was clearly different - they were here for some spiritual experience, to glean some wisdom or sense some grace. i talked to a Roman man in the packed crowd who said (in Italian), "I have lived here my whole life, and this is my first audience."

"You mean this is your first time coming to see Francis?" i said.

"No, I mean this is the first time I have ever come to The Vatican to see the Pope!" he responded.

He made it clear to me that he was not here to see Francis because of his authority, or because he was famous (as also previous Popes had been) but because, this Roman believed, Francis is holy.

It was an easily observable difference in the crowd: during the audiences of John Paul II, people would come early to get close to him, and then more than half the crowd left as be began to speak. i witnessed this several times. When Benedict was Pope, another group of Catholic pilgrims hired me to take them to his Stations of the Cross performance on Good Friday at the Colosseum. They stressed how important this was to them. So i took them there at the appointed hour. Then, when Benedict arrived, he happened to pass near to where our group was, and he even waved in our direction. That group of 51 American Catholics promptly and unanimously informed me they were ready to go home to the hotel, even while the Pope had only just begun his ceremony.

But despite overpowering crowds and no seats to sit in, this massive audience of Pope Francis remained all the way to his final word on stage. i was very impressed. And a little awed. :-)
Pope Francis on Saint Peter's Square, in Vatican City
(more photos of Pope Francis here)

All photos by the author.

1 comment:

  1. My name is Joe Pinzone and I'm casting an international travel show about expats moving abroad. We'd love to film in Italy and wanted to know if you could help us find expats who have moved there within the last 15 months or have been there for 3-4 years, but recently moved into a new home. The show documents their move to a new country and will place the country in fabulous light. The expats on the show would also receive monetary compensation if they are filmed. They must also speak English fluently and can be buyers or renters for their homes. If you'd like more information, please give me a call at 212-231-7716 or skype me at joefromnyc. You can also email me at Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Joe Pinzone
    Casting Producer
    P: 212-231-7716
    Skype: Joefromnyc


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...