The day of four popes: Top of the world, ma!

27 Apr

VATICAN CITY (April 27, 2014) — One of the most challenging aspects of being part of an historic event is that the full impact of the moment can’t be fully appreciated until it’s had time to percolate. The day of four popes — new newly canonized and two at the altar for the canonization Mass — was just that.

In St. Peter's Square the day before the double canonization

In St. Peter’s Square the day before the double canonization

Divine Providence, however, was at work for me and the other 1 million or more pilgrims in Rome today for the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.

While I had media credentials for the canonization Mass — the third time for me for a papal event at the Vatican — I didn’t receive credentials to be atop the colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica as I had the previous two times. I was to be relegated to the general media section during the canonization Mass.

Officials told us that the media would have special seating in the square (somewhere), so some of my colleagues opted to camp out overnight near the media office at the entrance of the Paul VI Hall. Accredited media were to be let into the square, which had been emptied for cleaning and security sweeps, at 4:30 am.

I had a late evening, but I caught a few hours’ sleep, got up at 1:30 am and set out at 2 am to find my media friends. I’m staying right on the edge of the secured area which has been cordoned off from vehicular and pedestrian traffic, which is on the opposite side of the square from the media center. I’d been told that no one could pass through this restricted area around St.Peter’s Square. My plan was to make my way through a million people in 2 hours so I could join my friends.

Plans change.

Canonization Mass

Canonization Mass

I bought a couple bananas for breakfast from the shop downstairs, and then exited directly into the restricted area. It was spookily deserted while the other areas around the Vatican swelled with crowds waving banners and singing all through the night. As I walked the deserted three blocks to the Vatican, I only saw paramedics and a few other workers.

When I got to the edge of Vatican City near St. Peter’s Square at about 2 am, I flashed my media creds and they let me through. I was standing right in front of the square where Rome meets Vatican City. My two-hour journey lasted four minutes. Instead of walking around a million people, I walked three deserted blocks. God is good.

I spent the next two hours chatting with Peter, a 22-year-old Polish student who was a dead-ringer for a young Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II). He was tending to a wheelchair-bound man named Martin.

Video of St. Peter’s Square… and Peter (aka John Paul II):

The largest crowd in Vatican history: Well over 1 million people (click to enlarge)

The largest crowd in Vatican history: Well over 1 million people (click to enlarge)

By 5:30 am, I was in St. Peter’s Square. But security were incredibly clueless about where to have the media sit. We didn’t have chairs. We didn’t have a special section. But we were in the square for a truly historic day in the history of the Catholic Church. I connected with my friends — Dario Mobini from Seattle, Alton Pelowski who edits Columbia magazine for the Knights of Columbus, and Jason and Crystalina Evert of ChastityProject.com.

Then the good news came.

Dario, who was born in Rome and raised in the States, had wrangled four spots atop the colonnade that surround the square. The head of security for  the event walked us up the narrow stairway himself. After all of the turmoil of botched accreditation and badly managed media relations on the part of organizers, this was a minor miracle!

"Top of the world, Ma!"

“Top of the world, Ma!”

I felt like Jimmy Cagney in finale of White Heat: “I made it! Top of the world, ma!”

That feeling didn’t subside until the Mass was over. There were about 400 media taking in the view as the square filled up. Most of them were photographers. When I was in Rome for the conclave that elected Pope Francis, I forgot my long lens at home. This time, I brought the lens, but left it in my room because access to the colonnade was a pipe dream. I should have been a Boy Scout! Their motto is “always be prepared.”

While I waited, I prayed for each person who had requested prayers from me. I also read the requirements for the Divine Mercy plenary indulgence.

Bishops taking cell phone pics before the Mass

Bishops taking cell phone pics before the Mass

Despite the hiccups, it was a thrill to see Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict from my perch. It was a thrill (despite my lack of sleep) to be part of a Catholic first — two popes canonized at the same time, and with two living popes present no less! And it was delightful to see the great number of bishops and cardinals taking cell phone pictures of the crowd and selfies, too.

My video from atop the colonnade during the canonization Mass:

The significance of the event was not lost of Pope Francis. In his homily, he praised the new saints as men of courage and mercy, who responded to challenges of their time by modernizing the Catholic Church in fidelity to its ancient traditions.

Pope Francis embraces Pope Emeritus Benedict

Pope Francis embraces Pope Emeritus Benedict

“They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century,” Francis said. “They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful.”

When the hundreds of Eucharistic ministers began fanning out through the square, I grabbed my things to make my way down. But just as I was about to go down the stairs, Jesus came to me! Two Eucharistic ministers showed up to bring Communion to the media. Well played, Lord! We need you.

Divine Mercy Sunday is the Octave of Easter. That simply means that the celebration of Easter Sunday is eight days long. Being in St. Peter’s Square today was a fitting way to wrap up the greatest feast of the year!

PATRICK NOVECOSKY is the editor of this blog.

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