Tag Archives: St. Peter’s Basilica

A Minnesotan in Rome: Witness to the extraordinary

March 8, 2013


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)

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.

Looking inward

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!”

People lingered.

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.

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Bringing home lessons from Rome

March 18, 2012


Bishop John Quinn of Winona, principal celebrant at Mass at the Altar of the Tomb in St. Peter's Basilica, was joined at the altar by his brother bishops March 9. (Joe Towalski / The Catholic Spirit)

Thirteen bishops recently traveled to Rome to meet with the pope and deepen their bonds of communion with the universal church. As I followed them to churches from one end of the Eternal City to the other for stories and photos, I found my own bonds of communion with the church strengthened and my own faith getting a lift.

The bishops — from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota — were making their periodic “ad limina” visits, which always feature stops at the city’s major basilicas, including the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul.

It was at St. Peter’s Basilica one morning, down in the crypt area by the Altar of the Tomb, that the specialness of where I was standing struck me. All the bishops were gathered around the altar with their backs to a glass partition, behind which — not very far away — was the tomb of St. Peter himself.

What could it have been? Maybe 20 yards separating us from the earthly remains of the “rock” on which Jesus built his church some 2,000 years ago?

I felt a very tangible connection to history inside that crypt. So did Bishop Lee Piché of St. Paul and Minneapolis who was making his first “ad limina” visit to Rome. He told me later that he got “goose bumps” praying at the “confessio,” an area above the apostle’s tomb where the bishops sang the Nicene Creed before coming down for Mass.

Foundations of faith

Our stop at St. Peter’s reminded me of visiting the Holy Land, where people talk about the “living stones” — the Christians who live in the place where Jesus walked and where the apostles laid the foundations of the church. Those “living stones” connect us to our spiritual heritage in a unique way.

Pilgrims from around the world come to Rome to visit churches, like St. Peter's Basilica, above. (Joe Towalski / The Catholic Spirit)

Rome has stones, too — stones that make up the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, the great evangelizer of the gentiles. Stones used to construct magnificent churches, some of which date back to the first centuries of Christianity. Stones that have seen two millennia of joy and heroic witness to the faith as well as the church’s struggles, challenges and persecutions.

The sweep of church history within those walls is an awesome one. But so is the sense of the universal, worldwide church you experience — whether you have an opportunity to visit with Pope Benedict XVI (as our bishops did) or stroll around the basilicas and their squares, where in the week I was in Rome I heard people praying in Italian, English, Polish, Spanish and a few other languages I didn’t recognize. It was an important reminder that we are part of a faith much bigger than what we experience in our home parishes and dioceses.

“Our faith is such an amazing thing. It makes us — who are so very different — really strongly one. That has been a great source of renewal for me,” Bishop Piché told me on our last day in Rome.

It was a great experience of renewal for me, too. I hope some of the stories and photos about the trip that we printed in The Catholic Spirit and online at TheCatholicSpirit.com and on the newspaper’s Facebook page have helped in a small way to convey the deeper connection to the universal church that we in Minnesota share with fellow Catholics around the world.

If you’ve never been to Rome, put it on your spiritual bucket list of things to do. The “stones” and pilgrims there will no doubt reaffirm and recharge your faith — and you may experience a few goose bumps of your own.

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