Pilgrims wave U.S. flags before the start of Pope Benedict XVI’s final general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Feb. 27. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
by Renée Roden
St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City
At 8:55 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 27, my plane touched ground at Fiumicino Airport, a 30-minute express train ride out of Rome. A little over an hour and a half later, at 10:33 a.m., I was one of many pilgrims streaming into St. Peter’s Square, just as Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus, drove into the square in the popemobile.
And I knew I was witnessing something extraordinary.
There is a lot of speculation about what the cardinals at the Vatican will do, and how they will do it and why. The question that we are left with is: Why does this matter?
One of the most beautiful tenets of Christianity is that the ordinary becomes extraordinary. As I stood in St. Peter’s Square, listening to Benedict XVI offer his thanks for the Church’s love and support, listening to the cardinals thank Benedict for his work, and bowed my head to receive Benedict’s final apostolic blessing for myself and my family, I knew I was witnessing, I was experiencing, something extraordinary — something that doesn’t take place every day.
The busy crowd, loudly vibrating with the sounds of hymns being sung, people chattering together, and spontaneous shouts of “Benedetto!” Or “Il Papa!” subdued themselves as they respond to his greeting with a hushed chant of “et cum spiritu tuo.” A hush settled over the audience, as they settled into waiting to hear the pope’s final words.
Although I was only able to read Benedict’s speech later (given that my nascent Italian vocabulary is still at the level of “grazie” and “do’ve il bano?”), the spirit of his message was abundantly clear — it completely transcended the language barrier. His words were ones of thanksgiving and gratitude — gratitude for being able to carry the holy burden of the Petrine office, and gratitude for now responding to the call to lay it aside. Spontaneous applause broke out occasionally in response to his words. Sporadic cries of “¡Viva Il Papa!” broke out of the crowd.
There was an overwhelming sense of gratitude and love for the small man wearing white on the stage in front of the crowd of 150,000 pilgrims, native Romans and curious onlookers. Next to me, a group of chatty teenagers ignored the proceedings after taking several photographs all together; an elderly Jewish woman watched the stage intently; a pair of Mormon missionaries strolled through the crowd, eyeing the stage. Next to me, an elderly Russian man ran up and hugged his friend, and they stood side-by-side watching the scene unfold.
The massive stone Basilica that took up the entire skyline dwarfed the small, frail man wearing white. Yet he stood out all the more. “Now I am just a pilgrim beginning the last part of his journey on earth,” he said the next day at Castel Gandolfo. His soft, fragile voice was scratchy and weak, but his words and his actions came through loud and clear. This event, this action was about something greater than himself. This extraordinary fuss was about something greater than Benedict. As the audience ended, and the thousands rushed out of the square, I sat on one of the fountains and marveled at the amount of people in the square, and how I managed to be lucky enough to be among them.
These extraordinary events often raise the question: So why do we care? What makes them extraordinary?
The next evening at 5 p.m., as my friend and I were waiting in the square, waiting to watch Pope Benedict’s helicopter take off from the Vatican grounds, a journalist came up to us and asked: What do you think you will see here?
Her question resonated in my heart throughout the rest of the day: What did I think I was going to see here? Why was I there? Why had I felt that it was so imperatively necessary to be in St. Peter’s Square at 5 p.m. on Feb. 28?
As a large crowd, undulating between applause and cheers and a solemn, rapt silence filled the square, large screens showed the sequence of events:
Benedict leaving the Vatican.
Benedict driving to the helicopter.
The tearful goodbyes of his chauffeur.
The helicopter’s journey to Castel Gandolfo.
The crowds outside Castel Gandolfo.
And then, finally, the then-Holy Father’s last words:
“Thank you for bringing yourselves [here] — with all my heart, I give you my blessing…. Thank you and goodnight!”
The little bevy of American nuns behind me wiped tears from their eyes.
Next to me, an Italian woman carrying bags of groceries had a blotchy face and sniffled.
A priest walked past me hurriedly, the beads of a rosary slipping through his fingers.
There was scattered applause from several onlookers unsure of what to do next.
Several groups of German Catholics, in traditional garb, stood with a banner that read: “DANKE”
Later that night, at 8 p.m., there was a much smaller crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square. As 8 p.m. approached, a group of seminarians from St. Paul, Minn., led the rosary. A circle of pilgrims surrounded them as they all prayed around several students kneeling, holding candles. A small wave of people walked up toward the barriers in front of the Basilica, our eyes glued to the clock, lit up, so close to striking 8 o’clock.
As a small chorus of voices started singing the soft, sweet tones of the “Salve Regina,” my friend turned to look at the view behind us and whispered quietly: “Here we are. Tucked in the arms of the Church.” I turned my eyes from the clock and looked over the square. The pilgrims kneeling in the bright street lamps mirrored the stony statues of the saints that processed out of the Basilica, atop the colonnades. We were surrounded by the Church.
I looked up to the Basilica of Peter — the Basilica of the Rock — as the clock gently, unceremoniously chimed 8 o’clock.
Our little Church that had gathered in the arms of the Church paused.
We applauded quietly.
And then someone started singing the “Salve Regina” again.
Our Church soldiered on with business as usual, as the Church has always done.
That was, I realized, why all this hubbub mattered. All the brouhaha and hoi polloi that surrounds the cardinals gathering, and discussing and coalition-ing and voting matters because of these pilgrims gathered at the feet of Peter. All that extraordinary fuss exists for the ordinary. The Church exists for the little second-graders in Stillwater receiving their first Holy Communion. It exists for the young couple getting married and starting a regular family. It exists so that a small piece of unleavened bread can be transformed into the body of the Savior of the World.
That is the miracle and magic of Catholicism — the grandeur of St. Peter’s is simply the grandeur that is in every tiny little parish church, with the veil of the ordinary removed. The extraordinary moments pull back the dim guise of ordinary-ness that we live our lives in, and reveals to us just how extraordinary each everyday moment truly is.
Renée Roden, a student at the University of Notre Dame, is from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. She is currently in Rome to cover the conclave for one of the university’s publications.