rome – the canonization!

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!

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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 girl at the bottom right expresses my sentiments exactly. 

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.

We ended up near the wall there on the left, towards the front... the very brink of St. Peter's Square

We ended up near the wall there on the left, towards the front… the very brink of St. Peter’s Square

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!!).

Our view of Papa Francisco

Our view of Papa Francisco

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.

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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!

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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!

I can’t take credit for this amazing shot; this and all the other slightly narrower-shaped photos are Daniel’s

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.

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St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII, pray for the Church and our world! Praise God for an incredibly amazing weekend.

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roman holiday

My weekend in Rome was defined by strange and, I would say, nearly impossible schedules. My flight arrived at Fiumicino at 11:40 and I arrived by bus in the city center at 1:25, which was certainly not ideal, but it got the job done. Luckily, my friend Wayne had been in Rome for most of the day and he was extremely kind to come meet me at the train station since we were staying at the same hostel. THANK YOU, WAYNE!! You are the best!

After a subpar night of sleep at the world’s sketchiest hostel (not dangerous-sketchy, just strangely-managed-sketchy), I enjoyed a cappuccino and pastry and embarked on a strenuous morning of being lost in Rome. I had to move from one hostel to another, and luckily enough, my destination’s street was too small to be located on my map, so I spent about an hour bouncing from shop to shop asking people to give me directions. Finally, a kind English-speaking woman approached me and asked what I was looking for, because she had seen me walking around for half an hour! She helped me find the hostel and the day was saved.

I dropped off my stuff and then took the metro to the Vatican to do some research for the next day, when Daniel would be joining me. I’d been to Rome before, but Daniel never had, so we basically had a day and a half to see everything. I had heard the Vatican Museum would be a hot ticket due to the canonization crowds, so I wanted to see what our best options would be to make the day go a bit smoother.

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The only way for a cradle Catholic like me to cross the Tiber 😉

Then I grabbed some pizza to eat on the go and walked to the Spanish Steps to meet Wayne and his friends from Schoenstatt. We then walked to the Trevi Fountain and split into two groups for more efficient sight-seeing. My group, which consisted of myself, Wayne, and his friend from Hungary, headed to St. Paul Outside the Walls, my favorite of the Papal Basilicas.

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There was a lively, poppy Mass happening at the time which provided an interesting atmosphere for our visit. I had never known this before, but apparently St. Paul is actually buried in the basilica (how did I miss that last time..?) so we got to pray at his tomb. There’s also a small portion of the chain from St. Paul’s imprisonment in Rome! The one major thing that’s changed since I was last there was the installation of a new Papal portrait:

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Our next destination was the Pantheon, which I had never actually seen before! This time, we only viewed it from the outside, and then headed a few blocks over to a church that was hosting a German Mass and prayer event put on by a Catholic group that started after World Youth Day in Cologne (2005). The Schoenstatt crew had met a girl on the plane who was in charge of music for the Mass and she had invited them. It was really beautiful and super cool to go to a German Mass in Italy!

I then said good-bye to the group and tried to head back to my hostel to maybe get a little bit of sleep before meeting Daniel at the train station at 1 AM. Predictably, I got lost… which was fine, because I got to see Piazza Venezia and a few other parts of town I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to visit otherwise, and I ended up back home within an hour and a half. Plus, I enjoyed some delicious gelato as I walked.

As per MB's request

As per MB’s request

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I did get to sleep for a little over an hour before I got a text from Daniel saying he was on the bus from the airport. So I went and picked him up, still a little delirious from sleep, and informed him (I’m sure he was delighted) that the best way for us to see the Vatican Museum the next day would be to stand in line at 7 and wait for it to open at 9. That gave us a good 4 hours of sleep, the auspicious beginning of a weekend short on sleep but long on everything else that’s good about life.

We sat in line at the museum for 2 hours, which would have been a long time but it was nice to just get the chance to talk to each other face-to-face and take silly pictures together, two activities you can’t do often when you live several countries apart.

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Finally we were admitted. We visited one exhibit of sacred art that I hadn’t seen before; the styles spanned from older, more eastern-looking iconography to Baroque-style paintings of biblical events and saints. Then we saw an exhibit of Popemobiles through the ages, which was awesome! It spanned from the days of horse-drawn carriages (apparently called Berlins?) to the VW Beetle given to JPII by the government of Mexico. It also included the Popemobile that JPII was riding in during his assassination attempt.

Then, we took the “short” route to the Sistine Chapel, all the galleries of which I’d seen before. In all, the exhibits are… decent. There are some antique maps and beautiful tapestries, as well as some very famous (and gorgeous) rooms painted by the likes of Raphael which depict the life of Constantine, the pantheon of classical philosophers, and the “triumph of the Church,” my favorite.

And finally you end up in the Sistine Chapel, which of course is breathtaking and wonderful but altogether it’s just a strange atmosphere. Photography isn’t allowed, and rightly so, and you aren’t allowed to talk, and these rules are very strictly enforced by guards who yell at you, and so it kind of feels like you’re on a field trip and being supervised by grouchy elementary school teachers. Nevertheless, picking out the symbolism and the organization of the Chapel, as well as marveling at the intricacy of Michelangelo’s project, is an experience that totally justifies visiting the Vatican Museum, in my opinion.

However, next came the best surprise of the day–as we left the Sistine Chapel, we followed a big group of people on the way out. I looked around, thought about the layout of Vatican City, and ascertained that the building next to the walkway was St. Peter’s Basilica! And sure enough, we emerged just outside the doors of the world’s most important Catholic church!

Whaaaat!!!

Whaaaat!!!

Now, when I had been doing my research about how to best visit the Vatican Museum, one of the big selling points for the expensive tour groups was that, instead of waiting in line for the Museum and then returning to the Square to wait in line for hours and hours to get into the Basilica, you could just do them all at once! So I realized at this point that we had somehow bypassed a several hour long line to get into St. Peter’s and felt really guilty! We tried to find a way out, but after asking a guard, we realized that the only way out… was to go into the Basilica! That, we had not expected, but it was a welcome surprise!!

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It was gorgeous. I was just slightly shocked to actually be there… because of the wait time to get in, especially on a canonization weekend (I’ve only been in Rome for the beatification and now the canonization), I had always figured I’d just never be able to see St. Peter’s, yet there we were! It was so ornate and just gorgeous. We saw the world’s most recognizable Pietá image, the world’s most famous Holy Spirit stained glass, and we even glimpsed the Blessed Sacrament in a closed-off adoration chapel. For the first of several times that day, we were scolded by security as we sat to pray within sight of the Eucharist through a little window… sorry, but we really weren’t sorry, Vatican guards.

After we finished gawking at the beauty and recovering from the surprise of even being able to see St. Peter’s, we attempted with various levels of success to take “Papal selfies” with the portraits of John Paul and John hanging on the portico and then made our way into the Square.

A very unfortunate self-portrait with now-Saint John XXIII

A very unfortunate self-portrait with now-Saint John XXIII

And a better one with JPII

And a better one with JPII

A uniquely-Vatican City sight

Brothers hanging with Swiss Guards… a uniquely-Vatican City sight

Our next objective was to find somewhere to eat. We found a restaurant on the trusty TripAdvisor app, but when we got there, it was closed… they only served dinner, not lunch! So we ate down the street, instead, both enjoying bruschetta, gnocchi with pork ribs, and house wine before heading to St. Mary Major, the second of three Papal Basilicas we’d see that day. I haven’t been to John Lateran so I can’t say for certain, but I think Mary Major is the smallest of the four. It is ornately decorated with gold, but somehow the interior is very dark… hence the lack of pictures there!

We rounded out our Basilica trifecta for the day at Paul Outside the Walls once again. It’s my favorite and I knew going into the weekend that I wanted to take Daniel there so he could see it, too. It really is beautiful. This time, the tomb of St. Paul was not open for prayer, or so we found out when we and a group of other people were ushered away from the area after trying to kneel around it… again, sorry not sorry!

Before getting scolded again for sitting on the wall....

Before getting scolded again for sitting on the wall….

Finally, we headed to the Colosseum area. I had hyped up the impressive view emerging from the metro station, but unfortunately the most prominent part of the Colosseum is all under construction and covered by scaffolding! Because we didn’t have the time, money, or stamina for more official touring, we just looked around a bit, peering into the Roman Forum through the gate and catching a glimpse of the Piazza Venizia area before heading back to our hostel. Our last objective of the day was to stock up on snacks for the next day before heading to bed before our 1:30 AM wake-up call! We did grab a quick bite to eat at McDonalds… which we didn’t feel bad about because, in Daniel’s words, we were purely eating for sustenance at that point.

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The next morning (if you can call 2 AM – 2 PM “morning”…) was consumed by the Canonization, which you can read about here.

After our brief encounter with Pope Francis and the impossibility of actually getting a margarita due to crowds and geographical circumstance, we instead walked, with thousands of other people, down the same road trying to find a restaurant. This was theoretically an unattainable goal, but somehow we stumbled (literally, given the state of our feet at this point) into a little pizzeria, which had precisely one two-person table left, and ordered the best pizza I think I’ve ever eaten, and of course more house wine.

The restaurant happened to be just a few minutes’ walk from the Pantheon, one of just a few more Roman sites that Daniel hadn’t seen yet! This time, we got to go inside… again, with so many pilgrims straight from the canonization. Everything was just NUTS! The inside of the Pantheon was striking. I won’t say beautiful to avoid word inflation 😉 Definitely rich in history and meaning, and it’s really awesome that it’s now a Catholic church! It’s certainly imposing from the outside…

Massive post-canonization crowds at the Pantheon

Massive post-canonization crowds at the Pantheon

We enjoyed some gelato in the shadow of the monstrous building and contemplated knocking the rest of our “to-do list” out in one fell swoop by seeing the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, but then we realized how incredibly dirty we were, not having showered the night before and having spent so much time in close proximity to so many people! So, we decided that showers and naps would be a more prudent choice! It felt amazing to be clean and off my feet for the first time all day!

After a too-short hour long nap, we wrested ourselves from the hostel and headed for the Spanish Steps. Not exactly a breath-taking site, especially after having attended a 500,000-person Mass in St. Peter’s Square earlier that day, but definitely a “must” for Rome. From there, we strolled over to the Trevi Fountain, tossed in the obligatory coins, and took the obligatory pictures before enjoying one last meal in Rome.

It was cloudy when Daniel and I went, so here is a picture of the Spanish Steps from Friday!

It was cloudy when Daniel and I went, so here is a picture of the Spanish Steps from Friday!

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What a weekend! I can’t believe I was only there for three days when I think of how much I was able to see and do! It was certainly a completely unforgettable experience.