This morning along with a crowd estimated in excess of 110,000, I saw the Holy Father up close and personal. My reason for being in Rome this morning I will share with you momentarily, but for the first time in a long time I had that sense of “chills” of being in the presence of the Pope. It is a sense I first had when as a layman I was introduced to Pope Paul VI but left me after repeated time spent with Blessed Pope John Paul II, on the road during three papal visits to the United States and and many, many other occasions with he and Pope Benedict. Perhaps I “overdosed” on Popes in my life but over time while holding the deepest respect for them and the office they held, awe gave way to “ho hum” perhaps.
Well “awe” returned with a vengeance this morning. First, when I arrived at my place reserved for all bishops and looked out over the sea of people in front of me. I have been in the square when it has been full but I have never been there when the square was full and there were thousands shoulder to shoulder down the Via Conciliatione, the Main Street leading up to the square. I had heard last night there were 92,000 requests for tickets for today’s audience, in mid-October, folks, when schools are finally reopened in Europe and everyone is supposed to be back to work but in front of me was this wave of humanity, all waiting for a glimpse of one man.
It’s too facile to say that all new popes draw big crowds. They do. But not this big. Ask the shopkeeper near the Vatican and he shouts “bella”or ask the cab driver trying to make his way through the area and he says “bruta.” Ask any person and they say they have never seen anything like it.
The audience is supposed to start at ten o’clock but precisely at 940am a roar goes up and out he comes on the jeep, smiling, waving, stopping for wheelchairs and babies. And they drive everywhere throughout the square and then, as I suspected, out into the deep of the Conciliatione where there were no barriers holding people back. They came to see him so he was not going to disappoint them.
For forty minutes he drove throughout and outside of the square, keeping we bishops waiting and everyone else at the “front of the line.” I have a feeling that he does it on purpose. Those who have the smallest or no connection with how to get tickets for one of the 90,000 chairs get just as much of his time and attention as those of us in the “orchestra” who hold jobs that ensure proximity or know someone who can land the best seat.
He walks up the incline plane from the car to the platform not like a 75 year old with one lung but like a younger man delighted to be there.
The formal part of the audience took, you guessed it, the same forty minutes it took him to drive through the crowd.
He spoke of the centrality of Mary in the life of the Church in Italian – an Italian spoken so slowly that even I understood most of it.
He dropped his text and spoke extemporaneously three times this morning, each time drawing laughter from the Italian speakers and scattered applause. He does not attempt any other language but Spanish and after one Our Father and the blessing it is over. You can read his written text by clicking here or by watching a summary video below.
We bishops were first to greet him and have our picture taken with him. It’s a shame that others wait so long because this morning Cardinal Meisner of Germany and forty-one of we other “red caps” were there.
I thanked him for all he has done so far after first telling him I was from St. Petersburg, Florida, in the United States and smiling he said to me in perfect English, “Please pray for me, I have only just begun and I need prayers.”
I didn’t want to take any more time and my knees were shaking anyway. I left the upper platform looking at the recent brides and grooms in their wedding attire waiting to meet him and get a picture. One couple yelled out to me by name so someone was there from St. Petersburg. I know Monsignor Morris and his brother and sister-in-law were there in the crowd somewhere as well as Father Craig Morley and a pilgrimage group but finding other people in that Mass of humanity was like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack. I have shared whatever free time they have the last two and a half days with our two seminarians, Ryan Boyle and Alex Padilla, but they had class this morning. Rome is beautiful right now.
I was on my way back to the North American College where I am staying by 1135am. I am in Rome for three days only because a man whom I deeply admire and with whom I worked for seventeen years, Kenneth Hackett, former President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, presented his papers to Pope Francis on Monday as the new Ambassador of the United States of America to the Holy See, appointed by President Obama. It was an honor to share these moments with Ken and Joan, his wife, and their two children.
I am home again tomorrow (Thursday) and back at it in the diocese where I belong. I shall not soon forget that warm, smiling, welcoming face of Francis and the energy of the crowd who love what he is doing to and for our Church.