Last Sunday, two Popes were canonized by Pope Francis. I was there. With another seminarian, I went to the Vatican around 00.15 and crossed the Angel’s Bridge at 00.49. Not too far along the Via della Conciliazione between the Angel’s Fortress and St. Peter’s Square, we found we could no longer advance, so we went back a short distance and sat down in front of a screen.
People were lying down on the ground on mats and in sleeping bags. Others had brought chairs. A statue of the Blessed Virgin that stood to our right had been decorated with a scarf that said ‘POLSKA’.
For some reason, either because the crowd had gone back or because a new stretch of road had opened, we found out that we could walk further, perhaps around 2am. At the next screen, we debated whether we should go on or sit down. We went on, and got stuck. That is how it started.
For about seven hours, the two of us stood in a road full of people, with more and more coming from behind. Groups around us sat down on chairs or on the ground, until there was another small wave of forward motion and we could advance a number of steps. We were carried along by the movement; the crowd was packed together densely, with people pushing and shoving at every new surge.
Twice I almost fell asleep standing and flailed, hitting the people around me, thankfully not their heads. A third time my friend snapped his fingers in front of my face a few times before I realized what was happening.
‘You can try to sit if you like,’ he said, and I lowered myself to the ground (which was difficult enough) for a short while. But he remained upright for a full twelve hours or more.
Eventually we were separated, but the periodic movement went on. In the early morning light, I found that I was close to the first screen before St. Peter’s Square. Closer was hardly possible. People kept coming in from and going away to the side of the road, where more movement was possible; every time someone passed, I had to shift my backpack; in the end I had to lift it above my head.
As this was very inconvenient, I decided to forgo the place I had waited so long to obtain; I went off to the side and walked back a short way, but still in sight of the first screen. The view was not ideal where I ended up, but it was a bit quieter and I could sit down for a while.
I suppose there was great excitement when the Pope arrived, but I don’t remember; in my fatigue, it all seemed rather muted.
Around ten o’clock the canonization Mass started with the Litany of the Saints. The sound was not properly synchronized; for every phrase there were two echoes, so that it was difficult to hear or to sing along.
At the first reading, a girl offered me a seat, for which I was very grateful. During the Liturgy of the Word, many people were dozing off or simply sleeping. It seemed ironic to me that those who had shown the greatest fervour in coming here were the least able to participate in the actual Mass.
During the homily, the kind girl next to me fell asleep, her body folded double. After a while the lady on my other side asked if she was breathing. I did not check, but said she was.
When everyone rose for the Creed, the girl remained where she was. During the offertory, the lady asked me again if she was breathing. Thinking that I had better make sure, I shook her until she opened her eyes. ‘Are you all right?’ I said. ‘We were worried for a second.’
She told me that she was from Poland. I said I was from the Netherlands, and introduced myself. She said her name was Dominika – which my mind translated as ‘the Sunday girl’. Beautiful and apt.
Communion was a holy chaos; sometimes people held up their hands to indicate they still wanted to receive Communion; we had to wrestle and be pushed towards the priest, and away from him after receiving. There was really no graceful way of doing it.
I am still glad to have been there for this once-in-a-lifetime event, though it feels like I missed it mentally. Well, it has been recorded; I can watch it again. It was worth the vigil, for the memory and the kindness exchanged.