I have had a wonderful year of travel including a trip to Rome over Thanksgiving. Here is one vignette from that visit.
I attended a General Audience given by Pope Francis on the day before Thanksgiving. This mirrored an experience I had nine years previously when I attended a General Audience given by Pope John-Paul II, also on the day before Thanksgiving.
St. Peter's at 630 AM is a beautiful sight to behold:
These General Audiences are held every Wednesday that the Pope is in residence. It should be known as a Really Big Catholic Pep Rally because that is what it seemed like! There had to have been 50,000 people in attendance.
Here are some crowd photos:
It is very easy to get tickets. If you are an American, all you need to do is contact the US Bishops' office in Rome at email@example.com.
I picked them up on Tuesday afternoon and got instructions on how to garner the better seats which will give you a better chance of seeing the Pope up close. Long and short: show up really, really early and go to the security gate which would be at about 10 o'clock on a clock dial if you consider that St Peter's is noon (I hope this explanation is clear). The audience itself starts at 1030 but if you want a decent seat you have to be at the security gates before 7 AM. The sister showed us a map of the seating and where to go for the best seats. She also said to all of us standing there, "and when you finally get through security, RUN."
Naturally I had not packed a hat or gloves for this trip, although I did pack a few large decorative scarves. The online weather called for mid 50s all week and I didn't expect to need either. Of course, that doesn't take into account two things: the highs only occur mid-day, and, the exception proves the rule. The weather all week in Rome was delightful - mid 50s and (mostly) sunny, but for this one day which was grey, cloudy, and I am not sure it even reached 40. Which meant the early morning was sub-freezing. So, one large scarf got folded into a babushka for my head with the other one wrapped around my neck, and on my hands? Socks. Yes, socks. To see the Pope.
I arrived well before 7 AM, all proud of myself, only to see that the crowd was huge and clearly had been there for a while. No one was paying attention, though, as they were all milling around with their signs and so I slipped into the crowd and by luck happened to find an American couple who were with me getting tickets the day before. I fortified myself with the chocolate espresso candies I brought with me (from Caffe Sant'Eustachio). Then, all of a sudden, it was 730 AM and the security people started to let people in.
Getting through security was interesting although what really made it easier was the fact that Italians love to queue properly.
Just kidding! Once the security gates opened, a river of people surged towards the three or four gates/conveyor belts and I was swept along. The good news is, unlike an airline, they don't mind if you bring food and drink through security so I brought a big bag of cookies from a bakery as well as my espresso candy.
Once inside I took the sister's advice and ran. I was stopped by a very large Swiss Guard who sternly pointed me to the area I probably should have run towards anyway.
In case it is not already clear, the Swiss Guards are cute. Here is another one:
I selected a seat which was three seats forward from the barrier which separated the crowd from the aisle for the Popemobile. I thought being barely ten feet, if that, from the barrier would be a perfect vantage point to see him. Well, I wasn't entirely wrong, but when the time came, my bright idea to stand on a chair to see over the crowd and snap photos was thwarted by the fact that the people sitting directly in front of me did the same thing. I still got some good shots.
Keep in mind it was so cold that I wasn't sure if standing and hopping or sitting hunkered on my chair would be better. It was good to be in the crowd and that no doubt helped, but since I wanted to get a good photo I was on the edge of it which meant I was one of the buffers adding body heat but still exposed.
Once the crowd was fully in residence it got very rowdy. People brought their items they wished to have blessed (within reason, I didn't see very large items) and the crowd seemed to be mostly Italians from various parts of Italy, wearing their parochial "colors" or scarves or signs with the name of their church. A few people in my section of the crowd were carrying huge flags with the name of their congregation on them and they spent some time chanting and swinging the flag around, to the consternation of some of the people within the path of the waving flag. Lots of yelling and at one point a young guy named Marco showed up (I was sitting not far from the gate to my section) and about 20 people sitting close to me starting screaming his name and dancing. Full body hugs, cheeks being kissed, they all ran out to see him and it occurred to me that they had all probably traveled up on the bus together to attend the audience from their small village church and had probably only been separated from him by a few hours. Hahaha!
More excitement: Directly to my right, across the "aisle" was a roped off section. It wasn't clear what this was for - dignitaries? The infirm? Ultimately it didn't seem to be for anyone because about a half an hour before showtime the guards came over and removed the ropes. Madness ensued. People right next to me, with perfectly good seats, all ran pell-mell to move about 6 feet to the other side to get equally perfectly good seats. I am glad I was not standing on my chair at this point lest I would have been knocked over. I guess the grass is always greener. This rush to get new seats was not done quietly, by the way. Oh no. Lots of shrieking and running. I think Marco's team grabbed him and swept him along, too.
The cheering got even louder when the Pope came out in his Popemobile and swept through the crowd. He made several sweeps up and down the various aisles, bestowing blessings and kissing babies. What a happy guy! He was beaming, just beaming, this entire time. I'm a bad example for a Catholic (the only time I visit a church, is when I visit Italy… and then I usually am there to take photos) but I was just so thrilled and honored to be there to see the Pope. I really, really like Pope Francis.
Photos. See if you can spot the one photographer who completely missed the moment. It made me giggle:
After several sweeps the procession stopped and he mounted the steps to the stage in front of St. Peter's and then read a speech and gave his blessings. Several priests then stood up, in turn, and delivered his speech in their own language. English, Spanish, German, and so on. A few photos, and note the heaters that were set up on the stage. The Pope even commended everyone for waiting in the brittle cold for so long. A laugh rippled through the crowd when he said that.
Can you see the heaters over their heads?
After it was over I went back to my hotel and soaked in very hot water in my tub for about an hour. I decided that was enough excitement for the day and all I did the rest of the day was to enjoy a leisurely lunch, stroll some more, and then a leisurely dinner. I think I had another scoop of gelato in there somewhere, too.