It is 8am and I settle down in my chair in St. Peter’s square to wait for the general audience to start. Part of me can’t believe I am here. I have seen so many pictures and postcards of this place that it seems like I am just staring at another picture. But the rest of me feels entirely at home, as if I have lived in this place for my whole life.
As I sit and wait and chat with my friends, more and more people pass through security and enter the square for the audience. There are now thousands of people here, from many different places. We are all here for the same reason – to say goodbye to our papa. He has been such a gentle shepherd and a humble priest that our hearts are overwhelmed with love for him.
A glimpse of the huge crowds that gathered in St. Peter's square on Feb. 28th.
The thought that we are all united strikes me. Being surrounded by the many people from different countries, young and old, rich and poor, lay people and consecrated people, makes me realize again that the Church is indeed universal. She welcomes all in her loving arms, leading them to Christ, just as the “arms” of St. Peter’s square welcome in all the pilgrims who have come to greet the Holy Father.
One of my friends begins to talk to the people sitting in front of her. They are Italian. We chat with them for a little while. Then someone suggests praying a rosary, so we invite the three Italians to join us. This too shows me the universality of the Church. We say the prayers in English while they say them in Italian. One decade is lead in English and the next in Italian. It is wonderful to be praying to the Mother of the Church in the place that is identified as the heart of the Church.
In the short time that we interact with the Italians, we have become friends with them. It is surprising, as we have no understanding of Italian and they know only a little bit of English. Still, we understand each other. They take a picture with us.
The morning progresses, but we still have about an hour to go before the audience with the Holy Father begins. The student life director brings us a small banner that has the name of our university printed on it. We hang it up on the barricade. A woman with two small boys who is standing at the barricade opposite to us sees the banner and yells over to us. “I’m a Franciscan Alum!” She is so happy to see us and asks us to contact her husband, who works for a Catholic news agency in Rome. “They want to interview you.” I take down the contact information to pass along to the student life director later.
At 10:30am one of the cardinals comes out onto the stage that is set up on the steps of St. Peter’s. One by one he reads the Holy Father’s greeting to all the different language groups that are present there in the square. He addresses the people in seven (or maybe more) languages. I recognize: Italian, French, German, English, Spanish, and Polish. When the English speaking groups are announced, we cheer loudly when we hear the name of our University. It sounded funny, because the majority of our group was in the front part of seating and only a few of us were in the back.
The excitement of the people in the square is building. Any minute our Holy Father will appear. The greetings finish and the cardinal takes a seat. A few minutes later we see the pope-mobile emerge from the arch on the left side of the square. The crowd erupts into cheers. The joy and love that the people have for Benedict XVI is overwhelming. I am caught up in it and blown away by it all at the same time. I wonder what he feels like.
Here he comes!
We wait in suspense by the barricade, not sure if he will even drive past us. The pope-mobile turns and goes around the opposite side of the square. I try not to get my hopes up, because I don’t want to be disappointed. Then he turns down to go across the back between the seats and the people standing. We get excited. He is coming towards us! He is going to drive by us! A few minutes later he turns down the little street and drives right past us. I am right on the barricade, only six or seven feet away from him. We are shouting “Papa! Papa!” over and over again. I feel tears coming to my eyes. As he drives past it feels as if the world is in slow motion. Love for the Holy Father wells up in my heart. And then, he stops. Right in front of us. For one or two minutes. He kisses the baby of the woman who told us she was a Franciscan alum. We are still shouting “Papa!” Someone is pressing on my head in an effort to see him. I don’t know what to think. I feel so overwhelmed. The moment passes, the babies are handed back to their mothers, and the Papa moves on to greet and bless the rest of the people in the square.
He was right in front of us! What a blessing!
When he has returned to the front of the square, he goes up onto the stage and addresses the people in all their different languages. It is marvelous. The love of the people surges up again every time he addresses a new group. He speaks again about how we must step out in faith and trust more deeply in the Lord’s will for our lives. When he is finished, we sing the “Our Father” in Latin. Then we receive the blessing of Christ Himself through the hand of His vicar on earth. I am overwhelmed by the beauty and the great grace of being in St. Peter’s Square for the last general audience of the pope. He is such a loving and gentle Papa.