I converted to Catholicism last year, a careful decision I made after a spiritual journey that last for nearly a decade. So when my wife and I began planning our trip to Europe last March, we made inquiries about seeing the Holy Father, sure to be a highlight of our trip.
Our trip, as you can see from other journals I've written, was a fast-paced two week tour through three countries and five cities. We would be in Rome for two full days, long enough to see all the main attractions, eat a little bit of classic Roman cuisine, and get a feel for 'doing as the Romans do.'
The Pope offers public audiences on Wednesdays. Reservations are practically impossible (unless you are a head of state or a huge benefactor of the church); the only way to get a ticket is to stand in line.
Our trip took us to Rome on a Wednesday-Thursday, so we knew we had a chance for an audience. But while in Munich, I read in the International Herald-Tribune that the Pope was on his way to the middle east for a groundbreaking visit of the Holy Lands and meetings with Jews and Muslims. Our hopes dashed, we planned on making the best of our time in Rome (and Vatican City) minus the papal experience.
We left for Vatican City on the Number 64 Bus from the train station, a busy bus that is reknowned for an interesting cross of pickpockets and Nuns. (Undoubtedly the same people).
But 64 was even busier than usual, a mild curiousity but nothing that piqued our interest.)
But as No. 64 got closer to Vatican City, the number of people on the bus approached bone-crushing levels and the streets were filled with people walking towards the gate. Finally, we heard another American tourist ask what was going on.
'Papa!' someone said. The Holy Father was delivering a special mass for pilgrims for the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq.
St. Peter's Square was jammed by the time we found passed the Swiss Guards, dressed in the colorful uniforms designed so many years ago by Michaelangelo. A long line of people waited patiently in one line for one of the good seats. We decided to stand next to the barriers about 300 yards back. An inspired decision, we would later discover.
A Mass in St. Peter's Square has all the trappings of a rock concert or a Sunday afternoon football game. The crowd is in a frenzy, chanting and cheering long before the ceremony begins. Organ music fills the air. Two jumbotron screens show the happy faces of excited worshipers.
And then, suddenly, the crowd hushes and then emits a loud cheer. Somewhere far off in Vatican City the Pope has climbed aboard a white jeep and a camera is broadcasting his approach to the square. As he approaches, and the landmarks become for familiar, the noise grows and then, the car enters the square and the place erupts.
The jeep makes a couple of passes through the crowd as people reach out to touch the passing vehicle. Finally, it begins its ascent up a long ramp and the Pope climbs out and moves toward his chair on the stage below his apartment.
On this day, a few weeks before Easter, the Holy Father's message was one of reconciliation. He asked the western governments to end their paralyzing sanctions against Iraq, just as he called for the Iraqi government to end their campaign against the Kurdish people. As the Easter seaon approached, it was a beautiful, simple message of living a Christ-centered life, and practicing the same kind of forgiveness that Christ taught his disciples. It was the kind of experience that makes travel so memorable, so worthwhile.