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Holy See, holy do: Easter in Rome with the Saint Mary’s abroad program

Courtney Eckerle | Wednesday, April 7, 2010

ROME — Easter Mass at the Vatican is by no means for the fainthearted faithful.  

The day started at 5:30 a.m. for the Saint Mary’s girls who stayed in Rome for Easter, or “Pasqua” in Italian, after the end of the Rome program’s semester. We hopped on the metro to St. Peter’s Basilica and were in line to get into the square by 6:40, and already there were at least 70 people ahead of us. Every 15 minutes after, the line seemed to grow by a hundred — luckily we were on the edge and could sneak out for cappuccinos to get us through to 8:15, when the gates opened.

When police started letting the crowd through, the force of a thousand people pushed us forward and through to the security stations. Seeing people pass through the security stations was like being at a human Kentucky Derby — as soon as they got the green light, everyone shot out toward the finish line of seats nearest to the altar set up outside on the steps of the Basilica.

This race was in no way graceful. It proceeded in a strange walk-run-skip motion meant to keep the semblance of polite, civilized people on their way to Mass, when really the “every man for himself” mentality was in overdrive. Since we were in the front, we were sitting about 20 rows back and could watch the crowd fill into St. Peter’s.

There wasn’t the kind of intense, disgruntled atmosphere you would expect when thousands of people are trying to cram themselves into one space. Excitement was the emotional current of the day.

Two hours before the Mass was scheduled to start, people started waving their country flags back and forth over the crowd, a few strung up on old fishing rods. One group was even holding up one strip of cardboard that simply had “Vietnam” written on it in Sharpie.
The weather had forecasted rain since 6 a.m. It had only sprinkled twice during the two hours of waiting, but everyone around was armed with ponchos and umbrellas. It seemed as though we might be granted an Easter miracle and escape without too much rain. Then, five minutes before Mass started, the sky opened up and it began to pour. Umbrellas went up, plastic bags got tied to heads and people fumbled into ponchos as the Pope processed out to the altar with a parade of drums and Swiss Guards.

The entire Mass continued in absolutely miserable wet cold, but the weather didn’t seem to ruin the event for anyone. We sang from our booklets, listened to the readings in several different languages and tried not to get our umbrellas hooked in anyone’s hair.

The rain seemed to bring out the triumphant Catholic spirit in small but heartwarming ways. People were loaning others spare umbrellas or even passing out tissues to the people around them to wipe their wet chair seats. The rain made waving big flags a bit tougher, but it didn’t seem to hold off any of those who wanted to celebrate their country’s presence at the Mass.

Thankfully, an hour and a half in, the sky cleared and the umbrellas went down, and we were finally able to see Pope Benedict XVI up on the altar. We shook hands and exchanged peace with the people around us — some Italians, but mostly people from many different countries. For the Eucharist, priests came down the aisles every few feet accompanied by a man holding Vatican yellow and white umbrellas. Italian line rules were in effect – that is, there were no rules, except to get to the front as quickly as possible.
Before the Pope could end Mass, the rain started again, and up went all the umbrellas. As he ended the Mass and we waited for his address, people from all across the square started chanting, “Benedicto! Benedicto! Benedicto!” for the entire 10 minutes before he finally emerged from behind the red velvet curtain of his perch above the square.

At that point, the audience became a sea of flags from all over the world — no U.S. flags that I could see, although there was one from the state of Texas — and the crowd became a mixture of shouts of “Viva Papa!” and wild yells.

The pope made his address in Italian and gave a blessing in every language imaginable. Every group erupted with cheering on hearing their language, waving flags and hats and everything else around.

In spite of the rain and the current controversy surrounding the Catholic Church and the pope, nothing seemed to dampen the celebration of the faithful in St. Peter’s Square on Easter. Emerging at least spiritually stronger from the cold, the crowds and the rain, those gathered in Rome on Easter seem to feel that the Catholic Church would do the same going into the future.

The views expressed in this Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Courtney Eckerle at [email protected]