Meeting the Pope
If Rome doesn`t have it all, it has at least got most of it. For people looking for remnants of ancient civilizations, it has got monuments dating back centuries. For fashion fans, it has got designer shops specialised in shoes, handbags and all sorts of accessories. Rome has got a pleasant climate all year round, it has got art, performances, beautiful people. For some, all of the above are just nice add-ons. They have come to Rome with one primary objective: to see the Pope.
Incumbent Pope Benedict XVI is the leader of the Catholic Church and the Head of State of Vatican City. Beside presiding several Holy Masses every month, the Pope also greets pilgrims and interested visitors on Wednesday mornings through an official audience or on Sundays at noon to greet the crowd on Saint Peter`s Square. I am attending this week`s audience today to see what it is about.
..sometimes feels nostalgic about John Paul II
A few thousand visitors find their way to this week`s audience. All hold a red ticket they collected the day before. It gives them access to the Aula Paulo VI, right next to Saint Peter`s Cathedral. Whoever wants to get in first needs to pass the X-ray security gates, and the clownily-dressed members of the Swiss Guard: the official army of Vatican City. The audience is then led into the Aula, where they clot together around the stage and the middle aisle.
Before the Pope hits the stage, groups in the audience have started chanting `Be-Ne-DET-to, Be-Ne-DET-to` and people have climbed their seats to get the best view of the pope. A slight sigh of disappointment runs through the room when the clergymen enter the stage from the side. The Pope takes his seat, right in the middle of the furnace and starts addressing the audience in Italian.
The message of today`s audience is one of freedom and truth. The Pope quotes Saint Augustine of Hippo, saying: `faith and reason are the two forces that lead us to knowledge`. Augustine further claimed that `A man who is distant from God is also distant from himself, estranged from himself, he can find himself only by meeting God. This path leads to himself, to his true self and identity.` And this is the recipe: `Don't look outside of yourself, says the converted one, but go back into yourself. Truth resides in the interior man, and if you find that your nature is changeable, transcend yourself. But remember, when you transcend yourself, that you transcend a soul which reasons. Then reach beyond to where the light of reason is lit.`
Following the speech in Italian, another priest addresses the Pope and the crowd in French, listing the groups which have specifically registered for the meeting. The Pope waves at all of them, while one of the French group start singing a beautiful polyphonic song when their name is called. Others simply cheer and wave with coloured items. The Pope then reads out a summary of his speech in French and subsequently thanks all French-speaking people for attending, blessing those present, their families, children, especially those who are sick. All of this process is repeated in English, Spanish, German and finally Polish.
At the end of the audience, Pope and pilgims sing the Lord`s Prayer. The Pope then comes down from his seat to bless people`s souvenirs. In the case of Veronica (35) from Mexico, that is 50 Rosaries for all their family and friends. 80% of Mexicans is Catholics and many are practising. Churches are full on Sunday, with Masses once every hour. Young people who went out the night before may choose to go to church in the afternoon, and they do in big numbers.`
Chris (28) from the United States attended the audience with his wife Laura (31) visited the Pope as part of their process of becoming Catholics. Chris explains that he used to see life from the scientific point of view, `never knowing that faith and science are complimentary rather than contradictory. When telling about religion in his home country, he explains that most Americans are either protestant or atheist. `Religion is not something you talk about a lot in the United States. Asking somebody about his/her religion can be seen as rather offensive and people prefer to talk around it. There are many incorrect and inaccurate ideas about religion in the United States. But the people promoting faith in the wrong way are usually the noisiest.` Chris suspects that islamophobia is driving many Americans to discover Christian religions and provide a counterweight to other religions that are relatively new to the American continent.`
Ola (25, photo) is one of the many Polish people who attended the audience. `At home, I go to church once every two weeks and no that I`m visiting Rome with 5 friends, there is no way around going to see the Pope. I agreed with the message about Saint Augustine and it was nice to be addressed in my own language.`
John Paul II
Like many Poles, Ola is positive about Benedict XVI but still prefers the previous Pope: John Paul II, known in Polish as Jan Pawel II or even by his own name: Karol J?zef Wojtyła. `He seemed to be closer to the people than the new Pope is, and he was obviously Polish which was a great source of pride. She is nevertheless full of joy for the souvenirs she had blessed by Benedict XVI: two photos of John Paul II for both her sisters and a Rosary for her grandmother.
Piotr (22) came from the Polish city of Oswiecim, known internationally as Auschwitz. He is a bit disappointed that the Pope did not walk down the aisle so people could shake hands with him. Other than that, he remembers little of the actual content of the audience. `I was simply too excited to see the Pope to really pay attention. I will tell all my family and friends about this. My parents have not yet been to Rome and they will want to know all about it. They will be proud of me because I have seen the Pope.`
Another Pole called Piotr (30) has just paid his 10th visit to the Pope. He is nostalgic about John Paul II and tells me that the typical program for Polish pilgrims is incomplete without a visit to John Paul II`s grave. It is not a big surprise that the former Pope still enjoys so much popularity in Poland. First of all for his kindness and Polish nationality, but also for helping the Poles keep hope during the 40 years of severe Soviet influence in Poland.
Rafael (28) from Germany has no preference for either Pope. `Spiritually speaking, there is no difference between them. Of course, if you look at personality, they are different. John Paul II was more outgoing and Benedict XVI is more reserved. For my home country, Germany, the election of a German Pope is quite a big thing. The generation before me had a very negative attitude to religion. The majority of Germans is not even baptised and religion is seen as something suspect. The introduction of the World Youth Days by John Paul II has sparked renewed interest in the Church. Younger people are turning towards religion without negative preconceptions. The election of a German Pope deflates the idea that all Germany can contribute to the world is negative.`
Because of his work as a priest, Rafael has not been able to attend the audience in the morning. `I do try to attend when I can. It is always a pleasure to be with the Holy Father.` When I ask Rafael how he feels about the many tourists attending the audience without appreciating its spiritual meaning, he replies: `It`s not the fact of being a tourist or not. Some people come see the Pope as if it were a tourist attraction. That bothers me. The Church is something alive which should not be visited as if it were something dead. For those who are ready to listen to his message, they are even more than welcome to attend.`
Rafael introduces me to the Vatican Youth Centre right next to Saint Peter`s Cathedral. Leen from Belgium (26), Roselyne from France (23) and Robert from Lebanon (27) are just preparing lunch and invite me to join them. They have come to Rome to guide young Catholic visitors to the Vatican. Their centre, set up by a Vatican congregate, hosts people for group prayer and regularly invites priests from the Vatican to speak in the small chapel next to the centre.
Robert explains me how his search for God has brought him closer to himself: `I used to do yoga meditation, but I felt I was creating a virtual truth rather than finding universal truth. Catholic faith is concrete. It puts truth at the centre point of religion and this is the truth I have been searching for. I refused to live like a hamster, doing nothing but staying a live, procreate and die. Faith gives me confidence. I pray everyday and attend Mass everyday, but little of that is sacrifice. Praying, to me, makes me feel close to God. It is like going to see the person you love most. There is no have to, it`s all brought about by spiritual desire.`
After lunch, Robert shows me the Youth Centre`s chapel. I spend some time there before I find my way back to the hectic streets of Rome. I took it slowly in the morning and enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere. I am now preparing for something opposite to that: it`s time to catch the train to Naples.
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