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A day of four popes

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Close to one million people gathered in St Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets on Sunday 27 April to see Pope Francis proclaim both Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II saints. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was also in attendance. Irish Jesuit Gerry Whelan witnessed the whole extraordinary event.

A Day of Four Popes

Living in the centre of Rome as I do, you get a bit hard-headed about all the tourists and the mass-events that occur in the city; you have to get on with your daily life. Sometimes your main relationship with visitors (when you cannot shuffle past unnoticed) is answering questions about where the Trevi Fountain is, which is just beside the Gregorian University where I live. However, for me, the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were a different story.

My change of attitude started the night before the event. Unlike the true faithful, I had been out to a dinner party that evening in a family apartment just the far side of St. Peter’s Basilica. Walking back, at about 11.00 pm, I became fascinated by the quiet masses of people who were already trudging towards St. Peter’s Square. Under the street-lights, you could see that they were usually in groups of one hundred or more, following a guide carrying a flag, often a Polish national one. Many were carrying rucksacks with sleeping mats in evidence. Young people were in the majority, but there were a remarkable number of older people, many of whom were obviously married couples. I could not resist just walking with these crowds instead of taking a detour around the St. Peter’s area. Soon, I found myself in a river of people being drawn through backstreets towards Via della Conciliazione, that leads off St. Peter’s Square. With a thrill of fear, I realized that the crowds around me had thickened so much that I would not be able to backtrack. Would I be able to break off and turn towards my bed for the night?

Now the centre line of the street was cordoned off and tens of officials dressed in police and luminous civil-defence uniforms were guiding the crowds forward, some telling them to walk slowly so as not to trip. I saw a large tent with a red-cross sign on it. Along the sides of the streets people were lying down in sleeping bags. The faces around me were partly anxious, afraid of losing touch with their group, but partly wide-eyed, like me, looking around. Some groups were singing; I thought I recognized Spanish. As we rounded toward Castel Sant’Angelo we encountered more streams of people converging. Now, we were slowing down, almost coming to a stop. I was reminded of Lansdowne Road on an Irish international match day when I was a schoolboy—when you watched a match standing upright. I was now being pressed from behind and was pressing those in front of me. Was it possible that this crowd was going to remain standing, packed like this, until the ceremonies would begin eleven hours later? (it was!). Suddenly, my opportunity emerged to eddy off from the crowd and reach the pedestrian bridge which crosses the Tiber. In the end, it had been easy for me to make a break for it.

At the civilized hour of 8.30am the next morning I found myself again walking toward St. Peter’s Square. This time, I was with a Canadian Jesuit friend, Alan Fogarty. He and I had already celebrated our Sunday Mass together and told ourselves that we were just walking to take a look at the crowds. At first, all we encountered was eerie silence. I had never witnessed so few people on the Via del Corso near the Greg. I had not had my morning cappuccino, and even as we approached the Pantheon we could not find an open coffee-bar. Then, arriving at the Piazza Navona from a side lane, our view opened out on a thick mass of people. We were still almost a kilometre from the Vatican, but this crowd had gathered around large screens which were already displaying the activities from St. Peter’s Square. The weather was cloudy and just a little chilly. The crowd looked tired and huddled, and some were lying eyes-closed in sleeping bags. Groups of young boys and girls in scout uniforms were sitting in straight lines. Alan and I picked our way thought these people, and could not resist heading onwards toward the Vatican.

When we arrived at the Tiber, we saw lines of people, many deep, standing along the river-bank—as if there was going to be rowing race. Alan and I arrived at a bridge that was packed with people and could see masses of people on each of the roads at the other side of the river (my tallness was an advantage here!). On the bridge, a static packed crowd were not within range of any screens or loudspeakers, so I wondered what kind of participation in the event they were expecting to enjoy. Alan and I noticed a kind of pathway in the middle of the crowd with a file of people, more or less in single file, passing both over the bridge and back again. Out of curiosity we stepped into this file. At the other end of the bridge we came up against a line of policemen blocking further advance. Most of our file turned back an passed over the bridge again. We realised that many of these were “soldier ants” of larger groups exploring the territory in advance to see if there was room ahead. There wasn’t.

I was now past 9am and Alan and I decided to stay put for the ceremony. Because we had not turned back, we found ourselves gently pressed up against the police line. For the most part, relations with the police were friendly, although there were some gesticulating loud conversations in Italian. Also, a phenomenon common to all Papal audiences was in evidence: women of over sixty years old and approximately five feet tall have a licence to poke you in the ribs (or in my case my hip) and to push by you. You can be younger than this if you are a nun in habit. However, even these could not get by the black-uniformed and fit-looking police. I recognized these as riot police without their usual guns; although most sported fashionable sunglasses, in spite of the overcast weather. The bridge is elevated and from where we were, we could look down along the side road ahead of us and into a section of Via della Conciliazione which lay perpendicular to us. The expression, “dubh le deona,” came to mind. An hour passed. As 10.00am approached, according to one of those mysterious laws of Italian physics, the police line dissolved and our crowd was able to press forward towards the people ahead who were slightly less densely-packed. In truth, we did not get far, but the advantage now was that we could see half of a public screen and some sound from loudspeakers bounced off buildings toward us.

And so the ceremonies began. We mostly accompanied matters by witnessing the crowd ahead of us, sometimes clapping, sometimes going silent. After a time, we heard an upswell of sound rolling toward us and recognized a simple refrain of “Alleluia.” We recognized that we were at the responsorial psalm of the Mass, and all around us began to join in the refrain. It was the most memorable moment of the day. At least with this one-word refrain all the languages of those present were united. At this moment, we turned into a congregation attending Mass. People did not look so tired any more, but I saw tears in eyes. I felt awe struck, humbled. I was in the midst of the People of God at prayer. And we have two new saints, saints to be friends with, saints who have time for each one of us.