It’s a peculiar feeling, seeing the town you live in trending world-wide on Twitter. For the first time in 600 years, a Pope has resigned as the head of the Catholic Church. And it all happened less than a mile from my apartment.
In honor of being in Rome for this once in a lifetime event, a few of my roommates and I excused ourselves from our Wednesday afternoon classes and made our way to Vatican City, 3 hours before the Ash Wednesday mass was set to begin. Thousands of people were already snaking through the square, lining up to be a part of Pope Benedict XVI’s last public mass. Nuns and priests gathered in drones to pay homage to Papa, along with just as many tourists.
Normally, the Ash Wednesday mass is held in Santa Sabina, a church located in southern Rome on Aventine hill. However, in anticipation of the large crowds, Vatican City opened the doors to St. Peter’s Basilica, comfortably packing in most of the thousands that showed up at its doorsteps. And for those who were unable to fit inside the church, or who were late arriving, the large screens located throughout St. Peter’s square gave everyone an opportunity to be part of the moment.
As soon as they filed us into the Basilica, it was a polite frenzy as everyone took pictures, documenting as much of the occasion as possible and taking in the breathtaking beauty of the Basilica itself.
When images of the 2013 Presidential Inauguration were released, I remember seeing a picture of the Obamas’ first dance, and how the entire audience was sprinkled with illuminated screens – this image was paired with an article, talking about how much times had gone digital. I thought the exact same thing as I stood in the Basilica, a place of worship, as the procession began their walk down the aisle and the Pope finally made his appearance (fashionably late, as he took his time blessing the crowd in St. Peter’s Square before entering the Basilica). It was nearly impossible for the majority of the crowd to get a good glimpse of the procession, as people stood on chairs and raised their iPads up high to try and get a perfect shot.
All throughout the ceremony, a few gutsy tourists would stand up, pulling out their expensive cameras and getting the perfect zoomed-in shot of the Pope. Of course, they only had a few seconds before the rest of the crowd was not afraid to whisper a harsh “scusa!” in their direction and the ushers motioned for them to sit down.
I’ll be the first to admit that even though I was raised Catholic, I’m not an overtly religious person. My desire to see the Pope wasn’t based squarely on my religious upbringing, but historical significance of the moment. As mass finally began, it was clear that I wasn’t alone in this thinking. During Communion, many non-confirmed tourists stayed sitting, their presence simply here to show support to a world-renown figure. One woman behind me even used the mass as an educational tool for her teenaged daughter, whisper-explaining the importance of the Eucharist and encouraging her daughter to get ashes on her forehead.
After two hours of listening to the Pope’s wavering voice over the loud speaker, weak with age, the cardinals gave a long, heartfelt Italian speech commemorating Pope Benedict XVI and all that he had done for the church, tears and thunderous applause erupted throughout St. Peter’s, lasting for at least 5 minutes before a tearful Pope asked everyone to return to prayer.
And the moment the final Amen was uttered, a kind of polite frenzy broke loose as the crowd began to stack chairs, all in efforts to get closer to the center aisle and get a closer view of the Pope.
Rome has provided me with so many once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and I’m so excited to be able to witness the dawning of a new Pope. And, like I said, it’s for reasons that stretch far beyond religion. Much like anyone who was in London for the Royal Wedding, being in the city that the world is watching is like being a part of history. I will be able to stand in St. Peter’s square with thousands of Christians, tourists, and news anchors as we wait for the smoke to turn white. I will be able to be part of the Roman celebration as a new Pope is announced. And, between you and me, I may pass the time by pretending that the Illuminati are trying to destroy Vatican City and I’m the key to helping Dr. Langdon thwart their plans.