Opinion

A pilgrim's journal

byMichael Pakaluk
5/6/2011

4:50 p.m. Roman time, Friday, April 29. I arrive in Fiumincino Airport, Rome, after a long plane journey, which included a layover at a completely empty Heathrow Airport, abandoned by Brits during the Royal Wedding. I arrive as a pilgrim, to attend the Beatification Mass of John Paul II. Banners are hanging throughout the airport with a picture of Pope John Paul II and, in different languages, a quote: "I have asked you to come to Rome to be with me. Thank you for coming." The quote speaks directly to me, as I am in Rome because, I believe, God asked me to attend. Now, I think, John Paul II is thanking me personally for that effort and sacrifice. I realize then that, through his beatification, he is no longer only John Paul "the Great"-- a magnificent and inspiring leader of the Church -- but now also a friend whom I can speak with and come to know personally.

Saturday. Father Mark Withoos, a friend serving in the Vatican office charged with implementing the Old Mass, invites me to attend his Mass at the Altar of the Transfiguration in St. Peter's at 7 a.m. We leave through the sacristy, where priests are vesting for Mass at various stations like soldiers arming for battle. I spend the day visiting churches, filled with people sitting or kneeling quietly. How different to be in Rome among pilgrims rather than tourists! Pilgrims visit a church to pray; tourists, to gawk and take pictures. (I am perplexed that many churches keep their usual hours and close during the mid-day hours, making no special arrangements to accommodate pilgrims.)

Saturday evening. After a late, Roman dinner, I walk through the city. At 1 a.m. in the Piazza Navona groups of Polish pilgrims are visiting churches, include St. Agnes in Agony (the source of the piazza's name, as "in agona," "in agony," became corrupted into Navona). In the steady, light rain, a youth group is camped out on the cobblestones, in sleeping bags wrapped in plastic. A priest who is evidently the leader of the group is sitting on a bench watching over them, keeping his all-night vigil. At St. Peter's, thousands of pilgrims are already standing in line. Vatican officials must open the piazza at St. Peter's at 2:30 a.m. rather than 6 a.m., as planned, to control the crowds. (But I have gone back to my hotel to sleep. No all-night vigils in the rain for me, alas, as I am recovering from a flu.)

Sunday, 8:30 a.m. Although rain was predicted, the skies are clear. It's a sunny spring day. As I arrive near the Vatican it looks inapproachable from the crowds. Many pilgrims have already given up hope of getting to the Mass. They have taken out chairs along the Tiber or placed blankets on patches of grass, breaking out food and drink. I squeeze my way through and find a place about 4/5ths down the Via della Conciliazione. I am one of the lucky ones, as no more than 400,000 can fit into the piazza and via, but later reports say that 1.5 million pilgrims had come to the city.

11 a.m. The hour before Mass was devoted to hymns and prayers for Divine Mercy Sunday. The Mass itself will last for 3 hours. After the Kyrie, a cardinal reads an account of the life and acts of John Paul II. Then the pope in solemn language pronounces him blessed. With a profoundly moving hymn playing in the background, the crowd breaks out into jubilant, banner-waving demonstrations that last for a quarter of an hour at least. Lots of Polish flags, many Spanish, some German, French, Ukrainian. (I saw no American flags, and no American politicians or dignitaries attended besides the ambassador who lives in Rome anyway.) But then the Mass resumes. There is an announcement in many languages that, to prepare for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, all banners should kindly be put away and there should be no further applause -- a directive that clearly comes directly from the pope, who celebrates the Mass solemnly, in Latin, with no hymns but only chant related to the liturgy.

The totality of Christian culture is manifested in the Mass. The edifice of St. Peter's, designed by Michelangelo, represents the good, exterior working out of Christianity throughout the centuries. The words and reflections of Pope Benedict -- clearly continuous with the deepest insights and mysticism of Christianity stretching back to the first disciples in Rome -- represent the interiority of Christianity and its beneficent influence on the human heart.

Pope Benedict in his homily avoids all triumphalism and, although he refers to John Paul as someone who "opened to doors to Christ" in "society, culture, political and economic systems ... turning back with the strength of a titan -- a strength which came to him from God -- a tide which appeared irreversible," he focuses on John Paul II's strong faith, which confirmed the faith of those who relied upon him.

Sunday afternoon and evening. Pilgrims in a line that wraps twice around the piazza wait to pray alongside the coffin containing the exhumed mortal remains of John Paul II, now relics. These relics will be placed under the altar of St. Sebastian in St. Peter's on Tuesday and accessible to all. But many of these pilgrims, poor farmers or workers from distant countries, are aware that they will never visit Rome again.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.