The alarm went off at 4am on New Year’s Day. We both groaned and forced our bodies to move after less than two hours of sleep. Mentally, I reassessed if it was worthwhile to leave the covers, and cursed myself because it was, and stumbled my way to the shower. Afterall, we had tickets for New Year’s Day mass with Pope Francis.
Let me fangirl for moment. I was raised Catholic, but I haven’t been an active member for quite some time due to reasons I will never get into on this website. That being said, I really love this Pope (Il Papa to the Italians). His message of acceptance, charity and peace without judgment is something I think we could all use a little more of.
We worked slowly through our morning routine, every movement feeling wooden, and eventually made it out the door before 6am, only a half hour behind schedule. We were revived by the damp cold air, with distant firecrackers still intermittently setting off.
We jumped in the one and only taxi at the taxi stand and watched the parade of stranded party-goers, some in full tuxedos and formal wear, wobble their way home. Some tried to hail our cab, which is hard to do in Rome. Sometimes it’s possible to hail a cab here, but don’t bet on it, usually the only way to get a cab is to find a taxi stand.
Why were we here so early when mass starts at 10am? The gates to the church open at 8:30am. Everyone told us to get there around three hours before the gates open to get a seat where we could see. We got there around 6am. There was some confusion about the two separate lines, one on the open side of Piazza di San Pietro on the east, and another on one of the colonnaded sides to the north. We chose the open side with the better view.
But we had a dilemma. The line we were in was shorter, and according to a guard, was opened first. The other line was closer to the entrance but it was longer and opened second. If we moved lines it probably wouldn’t improve our position, so we stayed.
At 7am they opened the square, the guard was right and they did open our gate slightly sooner than the closer gate, the only drawback being that we had to run. And God bless America, we ran as fast as our cold tired bodies would go across St. Peter’s Square to the second gate. It was fun to sprint after staying still for so long.
We slowly watched the sun rise from our place in the crowd about a hundred people back. This is not for the claustrophobic. We stood in the middle of anxious crowd that slowly pressed closer and closer over the next hour and a half. When we could still lift our arms over our heads sometime around dawn, my husband snapped this picture with his phone.
As planned the final gate for the security check opened at 8:30am. Some people ran, but at this point most of us decided to be more civilized and power walked. Right before security I turned around and took this picture.
The line wrapped halfway around St. Peter’s Square, through the center, around the tree, and back to the church, and it was still growing. If you ever plan on attending a papal mass, do what we did and arrive at least two hours before the gate opening time on your ticket, not the mass time. Even though they hand out at least fifteen thousand tickets for masses inside the church, tickets do not guarantee a seat or entrance.
We hustled up the steps and grabbed the closest side by side seats that were close to the center aisle where the procession is held. Now we could relax. We were there, we had our seats, we would definitely be within eyesight of the mass, and we would be very close when the pope passed by. We waited for another hour and half for the mass to start. But in the meantime we could snap a few pictures, get to know our neighbors, and chant latin Hail Mary’s with the rest of the crowd.
I don’t chant often (read ever) but it does help the time pass. The booklets that were handed out at the entrance showed us what to say. A waft of incense announced the procession of priests and cardinals and the crowd went from dormant to nearly unhinged in seconds.
If the pictures are blurry, it’s because I had to hold the camera over my head and hope for the best. And of course the procession ended with Il Papa himself.
It’s always a funny feeling when you see a celebrity for yourself. A part of you is always surprised that they aren’t giants or that they are walking on the ground just like you. I had that moment, he was slightly smaller than what I imagined, shorter than me, and I’m about 5’-8”. He kept his face forward and slightly downward, but his eyes were looking everywhere instead of straight ahead, as if he was trying to make eye contact with everyone in the crowd. His simple silver cross and scepter and comparably simple (google how the last one used to dress) Pope’s robes, he stood in direct contrast to the building in which he stood, which is dripping in ornate precious metals and jewel tones.
The mass was beautiful. Set in St. Peter’s beneath Michelangelo’s dome, Bernini’s altar, framed by Raphael’s paintings, and packaged together in Technicolor marble motifs and sculptures. The choir anchored the ceremony with arpeggio’d yet soft melodies worthy of a Spielberg movie climax. Readings were performed in various languages, such as English and Chinese.
In the middle Pope Francis spoke to the crowd in Italian. I’m getting better and I could pick up a few words and phrases, but I had to wait until after the mass to google what he said. According to the associated press he:
spoke of humanity’s journey in the year unfolding and invoked what he said where “words of blessing,” explaining that they are “strength, courage and hope.”
“Not an illusory hope,” he added, “based on frail human promises, or a naive hope which presumes that the future will be better simply because it is the future.” – source
It ended quickly after communion, and in no time we were wading our way out with the rest of the crowd. When we made our way to the church steps we were surprised and humbled to see what was before us.
I knew the mass was being broadcasted to the square, and that communion was brought outside for those that wanted it, but knowing and seeing St. Peter’s Square packed are two different things. According the Vatican website, the square holds approximately 80,000 people. I’m not sure if it was at full capacity but there were definitely tens of thousands, enough for the crowd to spill into surrounding streets.
But not everyone wanted to be close to the mass. They wanted to see Il Papa himself. Every New Year’s Day the Pope gives an address from his studio window at noon.
We didn’t try to get really close to the window. Fifteen minutes earlier, we had just stood not ten feet away from him, trying to get closer again felt selfish. The crowd roared and waved their flags when he appeared. This time I couldn’t make out a lot of what he was saying, the echo from the speakers was too distracting. In summary, he said that we are all in the same human family and we share a common destiny. He asked that we respect one another, accept diversity in others, and care for one another. He expressed grief over the violence in the world, and prayed that “the courage of dialogue and reconciliation prevail over the temptation for vendetta, arrogance, corruption.” For a more in depth translation click here.
As he finished, the crowd, which had been applauding during pauses, roared their praise and it was over. Was it worth ninety minutes of sleep and two and half hours of standing in the cold? Oh yeah, we’d do it again.
If anyone finds themselves in Rome on a Wednesday or during a papal mass, I highly recommend it. Click here for directions on how to get tickets.
Just a final note though, and I shouldn’t have to say this. If you come to the Vatican, don’t steal anything. Remember those blue balloons that were floating above the square earlier? They are actually really big hard plastic balloons that are refilled for long term repeated use. People were pulling them down and taking them.
To make it worse, the balloons were stamped with the name of the local children’s hospital that’s run largely through charitable donations. Classy.
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