Three years ago, I was privileged enough to attend the beatification of Pope John Paul II, when he officially became Blessed John Paul II. You can read about that here if you’ll forgive my flowery language from back in the day. It was an absolutely beautiful experience and I look very fondly on my memories of that weekend.
So imagine my delight when it was announced last year that JPII’s canonization was imminent–and very well might happen during my ten months in Germany! Lo and behold, mere weeks before I left for Dresden, it was announced: April 27, Popes John Paul II and John XXIII would become saints! When I heard the news, I immediately harassed Daniel via at least three different modes of communication to convince him to come with me, as we knew he’d be in Europe by then, too! So we made hostel reservations and were relieved the next month when the canonization date was actually confirmed by the Vatican… that was a close one!
Anyway, here are my thoughts on the canonization this weekend; another memory to cherish for my entire life.
I tried to approach all things canonization the way I had approached the beatification 3 years ago, but right away it was clear that that wouldn’t work. I haven’t seen any official numbers but there were clearly far more people in town this year, I suppose because a canonization is just a little bit of a bigger deal than a beatification, plus there were two saints-to-be instead of just one blessed-to-be last time. I got a tip from Wayne, who had intel from a few priests, that anyone showing up after 9 PM (13 hours before the Mass was scheduled to begin) wouldn’t get into St. Peter’s Square. I didn’t exactly buy that, but I figured 2 AM would maybe be safe. (**Spoiler alert** Then again, Wayne actually ended up in the Square so I guess you can decide whose tactic was more successful.)
So after Daniel’s and my packed day of tourism on Saturday, we went to sleep around 8 and set our alarms for 1:30 AM. We got to the Vatican by 2:30; on the way to the boulevard leading to the Square, we passed several large screens already surrounded by huge groups of pilgrims in sleeping bags and folding chairs. That made me a little nervous about the capacity of the Square, but it appeared that those people just wanted to be by the screens instead of in St. Peter’s (a decision that I would totally understand and envy a few hours later).
We were able to move up pretty far down the boulevard before we really got to the huge mass of people. But then we were stuck in the stand-still that I remembered from last time. At this point it was about 2:45: just over 2 hours to go until the Square would open and we would start slowly advancing towards it. We talked to a few people around us, including one really chatty woman from Indianapolis. We prayed a Divine Mercy Chaplet and people-watched. It is fascinating how many people, countries, and cultures are represented when 4-7 million million Catholics come together on one extremely crowded street! There was a guy behind us leading a group from Mexico who had a little speaker and microphone set-up that he was using to lead people in prayer, reminding us that “this isn’t a football game! We came here to pray!” One girl led her neighbors in song and tried to encourage others to teach us songs in their native languages (unsuccessfully, mostly). Daniel and I had brought nourishment in the form of extremely overpriced Cokes and granola bars, which we portioned out throughout the morning. Daniel did better in the self-control arena than I did. I had half-finished my Coke before we even got to the Vatican.
After a few false alarms of loud cheers that we mistook for evidence that they’d opened the Square early (“Pope Francis does what he wants!”), finally we started moving. Now, the moving is a unique experience. I was glad to only have Daniel to keep up with this time because it would be so easy to get separated in a big, or even medium-sized group. Once you start moving, the pressure of at least a few hundred thousand people behind and around you starts guiding you (to put it extremely gently) and you don’t have that much control. We would move in maybe 10-to-50-meter bursts every few minutes. It was SO HOT. It had been raining the night before with some forecasts of showers that day so I had probably over dressed, as had a lot of other people, and man. It was just way too hot. There were a good number of people passing out from exhaustion or dehydration and people would call to the medics to alert them that someone needed help.
The heat and crowds probably led to hot tempers, as well. We witnessed at least one almost-fight in the crowd… at one point, we didn’t move for the better part of an hour and I think a lot of us assumed that these were our spots for good, so a big group had spread out to sit down and eat (while the rest of us were crammed together with barely enough space to stand). Meanwhile, a lot of people from the middle of the crowd tried to push through, ostensibly giving up on trying to get into St. Peter’s. It was really hard to accommodate the lines of people trying to push through in the wrong direction considering we barely had room to breathe! So, between the big group of sitting people obscuring people’s mobility and the pushing involved in people making their escape… tempers were… flaring, let’s just say. Which is interesting when the confrontational parties don’t speak the same language and require a translator. Luckily, no one came to blows.
Eventually, after the one really long break, we did continue to slowly advance. We stopped for a while on an elevated platform with a good view of a big screen a few dozen meters outside of the Square and decided that we were pleased with these spots when all of a sudden, a huge space in St. Peter’s must have opened up because we were able to move up a lot further and we ultimately ended up on the steps of the little entranceway into the Square, with a full view of one small screen and a partial view of a big screen! By this point, my feet were throbbing with pain after standing from 2 AM until probably about 8:30 AM, when we ended up in our final spot.
Basically, the whole process of attending a big event at the Vatican (or, I would imagine, World Youth Day) is a huge exercise in loving your neighbor, even when you’re tired and cranky and hungry and your feet feel like they are literally going to fall off, and even when your neighbor is pushing you or griping about you pushing them or holding up a huge flag that is blocking your view of the screens. I won’t say I did a perfect job, and for a large portion of the morning I was hugely uncomfortable and in pain and occasionally frustrated. But I tried to keep reminding myself to be charitable and loving and appropriately joyful given the huge blessing of actually being in St. Peter’s in person on such a wonderful occasion!
About an hour before the Mass was scheduled to begin, the choir led the longest Chaplet of Divine Mercy known to man with reflections from the two Popes in several languages. It was a little hard to follow, especially with all the yells from people around us complaining about the huge flags that were blocking people’s visibility and of course the language differences, but I enjoyed reading the English reflection from JPII at least. At 10, they made an announcement about the beginning of the Liturgy and the need for people to stop holding up their flags during the celebration [the stubborn owners of the banner in front of us did not immediately comply leading to more discord in our section], and then it began!
Unlike the beatification Mass, the canonization started with the rite of canonization and the continued into the rest of Mass. We sang through a Litany of Saints in Latin as the priests and bishops processed in (and I decided to apply for the position of Vatican Events Coordinator, because we sang it three times as we waited for the procession to end, even though the square had been open for five whole hours… it’s not as though time had been scarce!!).
When Pope Emeritus Benedict processed in, the joy was tangible! There were lively cheers of “Benedetto!” and he looked so happy! Finally, in came Pope Francis! I have to say, seeing the two of them together, Benedict and Francis (the misunderstood and the even more misunderstood, if I may be so bold), was incredible, and the sight of two popes embracing each other is a rare one in the grand scheme of things.
After Pope Francis began the Mass, the Cardinal Prefect presented him with three petitions for the canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII, and then it was official: two new saints!! What a joyful moment.
The rest of the Mass was beautiful, too, although I was plagued by my hurting feet and odd developments on the room-to-stand front throughout the liturgy. They had passed out booklets of the Mass order (helpful because most of it was in Latin), but I do wish I had had a way to hear an English translation of Pope Francis’ homily, as I had been able to find on the radio last time. Here’s a transcript of the homily.
I had to leave the beatification Mass early to catch my flight, so I had no idea how Communion would work with 800,000 people (according to an article I just Googled)… I didn’t have high hopes that we would get to receive the Eucharist, but figured that would be just fine. But lo and behold, there was an army of priests with yellow and white Vatican umbrellas to bring Jesus out to the masses! It was probably the most intense Communion I’ve experienced, pushing through people and leaning over a railing to receive the Eucharist!
And then, after a joyful and painful two hours, the Mass came to an end. I know people have endured far worse for the Holy Mass, but I for one was so glad to have even survived the experience. I reminded myself throughout that, if I could just offer up the pain and discomfort, I would be united with Christ in that “suffering” (don’t misunderstand: I’m using the word extremely lightly), but sometimes it was a little hard to keep that in perspective. However, there’s just nothing like singing Alleluia with thousands of your brothers and sisters! We sang the Regina Coeli to end Mass and listened to two Polish sisters behind us start a chant of “Polska! Polska!” I was definitely proud to be Polish this weekend!
Of course, the next thought after “What a great and wonderful and amazing Mass/experience!” and “We survived!” was “WE NEED TO SIT DOWN NOW” so Daniel and I pushed through the crowd, made it down a cross-street, and immediately collapsed on the curb, saying things like “THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER” and “I’M NEVER GETTING UP.” We’re not dramatic at all, if you’re wondering. We had come up with the somewhat silly plan of going to a Tex-Mex restaurant right outside the Vatican for a well-deserved margarita afterwards, but as we tried to make our way there, we discovered that the middle of the boulevard had been barricaded off because the Pope was about to come through in the Popemobile! Apparently we were the only ones not to have gotten the memo that this was happening, but luckily we showed up in time to see good old Francis pass by!
As we talked over pizza after we had finally escaped the vortex of humanity that was the Vatican at that particular moment, Daniel and I realized that we’d had the same exact thought during Mass: that we would never do that again, as beautiful as the Mass and pilgrimage experience had been. Unless, we decided, the person being canonized was one of our family or friends, or if we were involved in the miracle that provided cause for the beatification/canonization. In either of those cases, I wouldn’t need to stand in St. Peter’s for 11 hours, so that would probably be fine with me!
Don’t mistake this sentiment for us being ungrateful. Color me EXTREMELY grateful and blessed; how many people can say that they were at Saint John Paul II’s beatification and canonization? Not many! I still can’t imagine how I could have ever been so fortunate to be present at one, let alone both, of those amazing events. I am so proud to be a member of the Catholic Church and I am so glad to have been able to see, on these two and countless more occasions, what an amazing force for truth, beauty, courage, and love the Church is.
St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII, pray for the Church and our world! Praise God for an incredibly amazing weekend.