I’m beginning to forget what lay people look like.
In case you missed it, last Sunday was Easter. Easter is a huge holiday for the entire world, but especially so here in Italy and especially at the Vatican. For Catholics, Holy Week is a time of reverence, prayer, humility, and then on Easter, celebration. Being here, in Rome, at the Vatican, for Easter was another exceptional religious and spiritual experience.
First, I imagine that any Easter at the Vatican is exciting and a huge occasion. This year with a fresh-off-the-presses new pope, the anticipation of Easter aligned with the anticipation of seing Papa Francesco again. I split my time between beautiful services at Santa Maria in Trastevere and the crowds of St. Peter’s Square.
On Friday evening at 9:15pm, Pope Francis arrived at the Colosseum for Stations of the Cross. He sat in prayer in a little tent between the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and meditated along with the droves of people gathered outside of the ancient theatre. The Stations processed around the Colosseum and then up the pathway to the Pope. Francis remained bent in prayer the entire time. After the procession, he rose and addressed the crowd with a message of peace and acceptance, specifically mentioning the problems in Syria and Africa. In front of an Italian, and global crowd, his message seemed timely and completely sincere. It was really interesting to take a second and think about context. There we all were, on the site of ancient Imperial Rome, once so secular, participating in the Stations of the Cross and listening to the Pope – the Catholic Caesar of sorts. It’s amazing how places adapt.
On Saturday we picked up our tickets for Easter Sunday mass in St. Peter’s Square. Tickets are free, but you need a ticket to enter (Kind of. In classic Italian manner, they didn’t check our tickets the next morning). Lots of Notre Dame students studying abroad come to Rome for Easter to attend the various services, so picking up tickets resulted in an impromptu reunion. Every time friends visit in Rome, it feels almost like worlds colliding. So many familiar faces in Rome creates a surreal atmosphere. It was great to see friends. If I couldn’t have family and deviled eggs and easter egg hunts on Easter, I at least needed some extra friends.
Sunday morning, we rose early to make it over to St. Peters at 7:45am for the 10:15am Easter morning mass. (Conveniently, the Italian government had decided that Saturday night was the right time for Day Light Savings and to spring ahead an hour….. well played.) We still weren’t early enough though to get seats in the Square. But, no matter, at this point I really can’t picture myself sitting in St. Peter’s, and I kind of envision all my time there as a bit of a physical test. After conclave, I never really expect to be comfortable there ever again. That would be too weird. So, of course we were standing. And, I’ll be honest, after the five hours there on Easter morning in beautiful sunny weather, I was happily surprised at how painless the service (and my feet) was.
The mass was beautiful. So many people all praying together in Latin, singing together. Being silent together. It was really impressive. And, the Vatican band made another appearance, which is always a treat. We should petition for world-tour dates. Kidding. The strange part of the mass was the absence of a homily, but Francesco made up for this with his balcony address and benediction after the mass. Again, another beautiful message of peace, spoken in Italian. (I could understand all of it!)
I didn’t expect to receive communion seeing as we were essentially sardine-packed into the square. So, when the priest arrived at the partition and people started to swim toward him, I jumped in the stream and received the Eucharist. A truly amazing experience. Communal communion at its most large scale perhaps.
Then Pope Francis got in his car and made a lap around the square. Side note: he doesn’t ride the traditional, bullet-proof glass Popemobile. He’s just in an open-air car. The man isn’t afraid. Or he really trusts the good. I think he just wants to be close to the people. He was waving and smiling the whole time and stopped to kiss a few very lucky, and now very holy, babies.
He stopped at one point, very close to where I was standing, to kiss a little boy. The boy appeared to have some disability, and he clung to Francesco’s neck as the Pope repeatedly kissed him. I can say with confidence that the hearts in the square collectively melted. Mine did.
After Mass we made the best of Easter festivities, attending Notre Dame’s piazza reception. (Anytime Notre Dame wants to give me free wine, I’ll oblige).
But, Easter is a day for family, and I missed mine. I missed our traditions, our hidden eggs, silly duck-duck-goose games, making deviled eggs with my mom, hugging my aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandpa. I was lucky enough though to have my friends and be surrounded by a huge Catholic family, on a huge Catholic day. I’ve never seen more nuns and priests. Since living in Rome, now I probably look at you weird if you aren’t wearing a veil or collar.
While Pope Francesco didn’t kiss me, it felt like he did. The experience certainly did. I don’t want to get too religious, but how do you not, really? – Christ rose, so so long ago, but He did again here last Sunday. If you were here, you felt it. I hope you did wherever you were. I hope you had, as the Italians say, the most “Buona Pasqua.”
I almost asked my mom to save me a deviled egg, but for everyone’s peace of mind and nose – I didn’t.