It is 3:10pm on Tuesday, February 26. I finish shoving the last few items into my backpack and purse: my hairbrush, camera, snacks for the road, homework that I am not really planning on doing but which I am bringing along “just in case.” I pull on my boots and zip up my coat. My roommate has already gone downstairs to get on the bus. I see her Roma metro ticket lying on top of her travel mug on her desk. I grab it and slide it into my back pocket – it would be disastrous if she didn’t have that ticket during this week long “super trip.”
Ready to get on the road, I head downstairs and outside to the buses with my luggage, a medium sized hiking backpack, a satchel I use to carry books and my laptop around the Kartause, and my purse. I have probably over-packed, but it is too late now. Besides, I am going to be gone for fourteen days, not just two or three.
It is nearly 3:30pm. I show my passport to the RA who is checking us in, throw my luggage into the storage place below the bus, and climb on board. As my classmates put their bags and coats in the overhead storage bin and begin to settle into their seats, the excitement is growing.
We are going to see the Pope. We are going to be there for his last general audience with the people of God before he steps down from the Seat of Peter and transitions to a hidden life of prayer. We can’t believe this is happening. None of us planned to be in Europe during this time of transition in the Church. We are in awe of this great blessing. It is the opportunity of a lifetime, made possible by the director of the Austrian program, the director of student life, and our professors. Only a week and a half ago they had completely revamped the semester schedule so that this opportunity, this blessing, could become a reality for us.
And so now I find myself going to Rome with my classmates, three days before our planned pilgrimage to Rome, to see the Holy Father and then to wish him farewell the next day. The buses begin to pull away and we say “auf wiedersehen ” to the Kartause and Gaming. We will return only after a very long and exhausting, but hopefully fruitful, Roman holiday. It is now around 3:45pm.
The bus turns right out of the Kartause parking lot (a first) and heads up into the mountains. It is snowing lightly, but the flakes are very thick and large. The road winds and becomes steep as we venture further into the mountains. The bus is filled with music and the chatter and laughter of about fifty people. We have just finished midterms and we are going to see the Pope – if that isn’t a cause for joy, what is? Still, I am slightly overwhelmed by the noise. I have been awake since 6:30am and I am getting tired.
Once we make it to the other side of the mountains, our drive is relatively straight and flat. The bus drives through the night. Every three or four hours it stops and we all pile out to use the bathroom, breath some fresh air, and stretch our cramped legs. (We are used to this kind of travel now, after going to Poland and back two weekends ago). The last of these stops is at 3:35am on Wednesday, February 27. I am sleepy, but I get off the bus anyways. This is our last stop before we reach Rome. Before getting back on the bus again I grab breakfast – an orange, a banana, a granola bar, and a large bottle of water. There is no way I am eating this now. I get back on the bus and quickly fall back asleep.
“Hey guys, it’s time to wake up.” The RD’s voice comes over the bus’ speaker system. “We are only a few minutes away from the place where the buses are dropping us off.” I rub my eyes and stretch. Then I shove my breakfast into my purse. I am ready. It is around 6am.
The bus pulls into a parking lot and we all pile out. We stand in the parking lot chatting, then little groups of people begin to make their way to Vatican City. I begin to walk with a group of friends. Suddenly, we round a corner and I can see the dome of St. Peter’s before me, all lit up, with the pre-dawn sky painted navy blue behind it. The sight makes me so joyful! I laugh in disbelief. The excitement amongst my classmates begins to build. Soon we are running down the streets of Rome towards the Vatican. We can’t wait to get there! We can’t wait to see our Holy Father.
When we reach the gates of the city there is already a mass of people there. Security doesn’t open until 7 or 7:30am, so we pack into the crowd and wait. A group of American seminarians is next to me. They form a circle and begin to pray morning prayer. When they are finished, a friend and I begin to chat with one of them. He tells us to climb to the top of the Cupola, to tour the necropolis underneath St. Peter’s, and how to get to a good bakery.
The security guards open the gates and begin to let people through. People are packed on top of each other. They are pushing from all sides, in all directions. I have no choice but to move with the crowd, otherwise I could be trampled underfoot.
When I finally make it through the security line, about 20 of my classmates and I discover that the front section of seating where the rest of the school is sitting has just been closed, so we find some seats in the back, right next to the barricade. At first we are disappointed and try to get through to the front with everyone else. But then we begin to hope that the Pope might drive right past us. This is exciting, but I don’t want to be disappointed, so I try not to get my hopes up.
It is only about 8am and the audience doesn’t start until 10:30am. So I settle down in my chair to wait. And as I gaze on the beauty of St. Peter’s and on the thousands of people who have come to say goodbye to Papa Ben, I am struck by how universal – how catholic – our Church truly is…
(To be continued…)