As my alarm chirped at 6 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 5, I had a thought that only the laziest, most exhausted college students could have — and one I never imagined myself thinking.
“How badly do I really need to see the Pope?”
Of course, I brushed the thought away almost as quickly as it came. After all, how many people even get to contemplate making that decision?
The John Felice Rome Center (JFRC) canceled all classes scheduled for that day and reserved tickets for the student body to attend that morning’s papal audience.
As I rolled out of bed at 6:15 a.m, I really had no idea what a papal audience even was or what I was getting myself into. All I knew was that our tickets said the event started at 9:30, but the JFRC Student Life team suggested we leave campus at 6:45.
St. Peter’s Basilica is relatively easy to get to from the JRFC — both by bus and by regional train. We arrived at the Vatican around 7:20 a.m. — just as the sun was rising — and I’ve never seen the square so empty. I took advantage of the opportunity and snapped some pictures of the outside of the Basilica while there weren’t crowds of tourists outside of it.
We made our way to security, still without really knowing where we were going. We joined the mob (Italians don’t line up, they mob) in front of the metal detectors and waited what felt like hours to get through. It was kind of like airport security, except this wait had a view of the sun rising on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. And I got to keep my shoes on.
We were told we’d be outside for the audience, but once we got through security we were ushered into a building that I later found out is the Hall of Pope Paul VI. While it wasn’t the open air of St. Peter’s Square I was expecting, the hall was still fairly breathable due to its sheer size and domed sunroof. Its stained glass windows and marble steps leading up to a sculpture of The Resurrection certainly felt fit for the Pope.
We got to our seats at 8:15 a.m. and the enormous auditorium steadily filled with masses of people for the next hour.
There are moments when life in Rome feels like day-to-day life, and there are moments when life in Rome feels like a cliche once-in-a-lifetime adventure story.
As I found myself a mere few hundred feet from Pope Francis himself — and as the English-speaking religious representative gave a special welcome to all students from the JFRC — I definitely felt like the protagonist of a cliche travel movie. I could almost feel another version of myself watching this and thinking, “Oh, that would never happen.” And yet it did.
Once Pope Francis — or Papa Francisco, as he’s called in Italy — finished processing in, various cardinals and bishops read aloud a selected passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel in their respective native languages, which included Italian, German, Spanish, English and Portuguese.
Pope Francis then gave a brief reflection (in Italian) on the first beatitude, a special blessing for those on earth who are “poor in spirit.” Later summarized and translated into each language, Pope Francis encouraged us to dedicate our lives to service in order to live by this beatitude.
The ceremony concluded with a collective singing of the Our Father in Latin (which luckily was printed on the backs of our tickets). Pope Francis began visiting with members of the crowd, shaking hands and blessing religious artifacts brought to him. Women even approached him donned in their wedding dresses in order to get their marriages blessed.
Knowing the Pope would never have time to reach everyone in the crowd, we decided to leave around 10:20 a.m. We endured hours of standing and waiting, amidst crowds of people who spoke a variety of languages — and Pope Francis only had so much time to give.
Still, there’s something special about an enormous hall full of people who have almost nothing in common, uniting in faith, admiration and pure excitement. And I’d say that made waking up at 6 a.m. feel a little bit easier.