I wasn’t even sure the international call/fax had gone through so imagine my surprise when Francesco, the hotel owner, emailed to say that the envelope had arrived. Surprise #1. The Italian government is notoriously shady and inefficient. The office of the Vatican obviously is not. I was invited to attend a mass for the Elderly and Grandparents. How appropriate, I thought.
I booked a taxi to take me to St. Peter’s on Sunday morning and arrived (at the wrong Bronze Doors, as it turned out) at 8:30. The line snaking from the entrance to what I later found out was the Vatican Museum around the corner was already a few kilometers long. My heart sank. I asked one of the Carabinieri – darkly handsome, fit young men in tightly fitted uniforms (no unsightly safety vests) with white designer satchels at their hips – if I had to wait in line to pick up my ticket to mass. He peered at my letter and said, “No, senora. Go that way and up the stairs.”
Half a kilometer away, I was at the entrance to the actual Vatican offices. A serious young man with a squiggly earpiece loped down the steps, took my envelope and returned with another one, larger and more official looking. I asked If I could take a picture of the Papal guard and he said sternly, ‘No, senora.’ All righty then.
There were ushers handing out bottles of cold water to the throng filling the seats. I despaired of getting close but since I had a ticket, I was waved inside the grey barrier and found a seat near the end of a row, beside a tiny nun in white. We were surrounded by throngs of old geezers. By then it was nine o’clock. We nodded but once she started chattering to me in Italian and I replied in my broken schoolyard phrasebook speech, I figured it would be easier to say, ‘Non capisco’ and show her my Canadian flag luggage tag. She nodded happily then continued her conversation with me, in between pecking away at her flip phone.
The place was packed with ‘elderly and grandparents’, mostly couples, many of them obviously from clubs or social groups. They sported matching hats and carried bright-coloured banners.
We were in the midst of the ‘green hat’ section, about 20 rows from the ‘front’, which was still a few hundred meters away from the edge of the altar. I got lots of sidelong glances, some tentative smiles but basically they left me alone and chatted among themselves. Guess I looked normal enough. And of course there was the grey hair that meant I was a member of their age group. I zipped out to the toilet, just in case. It was immaculate and managed by a stern matron who would have done well in a detention facility.
Photographers and videographers were everywhere, recording everything. There was a jumbo television screen on each side of the altar. It was hot. And a beautiful clear day with no hint of moisture in the air. I thanked the Lord that there were chairs, even if we were packed tight as anchovies in a jar. There was a lot going on – a constant stream of announcements and to-ing and fro-ing on the huge altar, a choir somewhere singing Gregorian chants, squads of cardinals and functionaries, kids lolling about, regular people bringing greetings in different languages.
There was blanket security. On the altar, dozens of earnest men in dark suits with earpieces scanned the audience. At the fences and in the aisles, men in three-piece suits and snazzy tailored uniforms patrolled constantly. A mass book had been left at each seat – hooray! Italian and Latin.
I tuned out the yakking and had started to say my rosary when I heard a familiar tune. Andrea Bocelli’s Con te partirò (Time to say goodbye). Lovely I thought, glancing up idly. Sweet Jesus. It was Bocelli himself off to the left, singing. What a lovely treat. The old geezers weren’t really listening. Guess that was old hat to them.
There was some loud applause and a commotion off to the left of the altar behind some curtains. More cardinals? Dignitaries? No, it was former Pope Benedict being helped down the stairs. After the obligatory bowing and hand-pressing, he was seated under the blazing sun.More speechifying then about 10 minutes later, more applause, louder this time. Pope Francis bounded down the steps with his entourage and took a seat under a massive canopy in the middle of the altar, flanked by cardinals. More speeches, presentations and ring kissing, then the choir began again as the former and current popes left. I looked behind me and saw that the enormous square was elbow to elbow with people. By then it was almost 10:30 and the sun had risen in the pure cobalt sky. I put on my hat (blue) and readied my mind for mass.
The music swelled and we creaked to our feet for the opening prayer. There was some rustling and a hand reached up to remove Pope Francis’ miter. He stepped up to the altar and began to say mass. I was thunderstruck. He was both ordinary, in the sense that the words he spoke were the same ones I had heard ever since I can remember. He was extraordinary in the sense that this was the Pope blessing the multitude.
Papa Francesco, the temporal leader of the Catholic Church. I felt so honoured, so humbled – I can’t explain the rush of things that went through my mind. The bishop who sang the liturgy had a magnificent voice. It was terrific to sing the responses in Latin, which I still miss – Et cum spiritu tuo, Dignum et justum est, Sanctus, Agnus Dei qui tolis peccata mundi. I wanted to weep.
If I’m to be honest, though, after we said the Pater Noster and gave each other the sign of Peace, I wondered if they were going to take up collection, which would have been the normal practice. They didn’t. Then I thought, ‘they can’t mean to give Communion to almost 20,000 people’. They did.
About a hundred young priests of all nationalities wearing blinding-white surplices over their black robes swept from the altar and into the aisles, each carrying a gold ciborium. The one closest to me stood a few rows back.
Some of those old nonnas were spry enough to try to step around me but I held my ground until the young Asian priest turned my way and administered the sacrament. Hand to mouth, in the old style. That changed in North America years ago when the SARS epidemic struck. As I elbowed my way back to my seat to give thanks for my blessings – my life, my love, my family and my friends – it flashed on me that those priestly fingers had already touched hundreds of lips before mine. Instead of being grossed out, I put my faith in God that he’d protect me. Plus, we were all elderly and had probably survived worse, right?
The rest of the service was a denouement. The people in the altar were sweating like mad. The Pope sounded weary. It was almost noon and a few people fainted. As we turned to leave our enclosure though (a stampede of little old tanned cattle came to mind), we were stopped by security.
There was a lot of griping and loud complaining behind me. My hockey training came in handy – elbows out, feet planted. I was taller than most of them but I wasn’t giving up my spot. I asked one of the guards what was happening. He said, ‘‘the Pope’. Five minutes later, a sweep of applause started far to our right then faded towards the far edge of the Square.
My morning – one shared with tens of thousands of others and filled with totally unexpected joy – was complete.