Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

Pope John Paul II: Rome, April 2005

Friday, 7 April, 2017

Tutto il mondo a San Pietro. That’s the way it was in Rome in early April 2005 as we joined the crowds intending to pay their respects to the saint-to-be, Pope John Paul II, who was lying in state at St. Peter’s Basilica. From that memorable day, here are our notes of a pilgrim’s (sometimes grim) progress in the Eternal City.

10:23 a.m. The sun is in the sky. A fortifying breakfast has been consumed. The major prints have been read. It is almost time to get in line. But let’s have one more espresso before the work begins.

The TV in the corner of the bar here on the corner of Largo Branaccio is showing a huge throng of people filling the Via della Conciliazione, which leads from the Tiber to St. Peter’s Square. The influx has to be seen to be believed and the numbers are almost alarming. More than a million pilgrims are expected to view the body of Pope John Paul II today and the television reporter is saying that 18,000 people an hour are moving through the basilica and past the body.

I suppose one conclusion we draw from all this is that the 1960’s are finally over. Remember? “God is dead!” The pope is, but he’s still acting out the central Christian belief that redemption is there to be sought. Anyway, here goes. Time to enter pilgrim territory.

Would it have been better to have risen at dawn yesterday, instead of dawdling over breakfast? Too late now for retrospect. What follows is the chronicle of a day in the life of a pilgrim in Rome.

11.20 a.m. There’s a shuttle bus service operating from the main station, Termini, to the Tiber. Seems to be free as well. At least no one stamping tickets. Unfortunately, the bus driver decides to call a one-man strike at the Palazzo Venezia and we have to foot it from there.

12.20 p.m. The line is forming south of Ponte Sant’Angelo. The imposing dome of St. Peter’s is visible in the distance. Something about the size of the crowd and the enormous speed with which it is swelling says that getting there may not pan out as expected.

1.20 p.m. Standstill. In the battle for popularity in Poland’s mobile phone market, it is even-Steven between Nokia and Siemens. This observation is based on a quick survey of surrounding pilgrims. The phones are as varied as their owners — big, small, simple, sophisticated. Poland has come a long way and it’s not surprising that its people have stormed Rome to give thanks to the man who gave them back their identity.

2.20 p.m. Along with the Poles, the other major national group represented here is the Italians. They’ve planned for a long day if the variety and amount of sandwiches is anything to go by. My neighbour, Carlo from Salerno, is eating a lovely looking one made with delicate brown bread and filled with sausage and spinach. Panic begins to set in here. What if I miscalculated on the food front? What if this takes eight hours instead of the expected five?

3.20 p.m. Headgear is a must. The sun is beating down, which is better than rain, of course, but not so charming if you cannot move. Another must is a book. Mine is Despair by Vladimir Nabokov. An odd choice, I agree, but the selection in the train station book shop was bizarre. In the English books section it was Nabokov or Michael Moore. “I can readily imagine what Pushkin might have said to his trembling paraphrasts,” Nabokov writes. A new word for the vocabulary, that, paraphrasts.

4.20 p.m. We make it onto the Ponte Vittorio Emmanuel. What’s it now? Four hours? And we’ve covered a distance that would take a slow walker five minutes on a normal day. Except this is a day when more than a million pilgrims are trying to get to see a hero. People still very cheerful, though. City workers are supplying us with bottle of water and the gesture is appreciated.

5.20 p.m. Ah, ha! Oh, oh! Now we can see why progress has been so slow. On the other side of the Tiber, to our left, a huge river of people is pressing forward. What’s it going to be like when we merge with them? Chat to Julia Baker, an English pilgrim. Charles and Camilla. What we’re seeing today suggests to her that the Church of England will fold its tent when William ascends the throne. It’s not a spiritual experience anymore and that’s what people hunger for. The fact that Charles is here means that he knows the game is up, she says.

6.20 p.m. We take the bridge! But a wave of worry ripples through the crowd. Italian authorities are sending out text messages telling people not to join the lines. Apparently, they are worried that it will get out of control. Lots of excited conversation. We are determined to press on, however. There can be no turning back now we tell ourselves.

7.20 p.m. Helen and George are from just outside Seattle. Not exactly young, either, but they seem to be coping well. They get alarmed when we look back at the mass of people we have left behind on the bridge. What if? The only consolation of being stuck on the corner of Borgo S. Spirito and Via S. Pio X is the architecture. Alarm! No more food left.

8.20 p.m. If only we could get onto the Via della Conciliazione. We could then see St. Peter’s. What we can see, though, is a huge screen showing scenes from inside the basilica with people filing past the body. The picture quality is stunning. Wonder what the screen resolution is?

9.20 p.m. Where would we be without our mobile phones? Fingers flying. Messages pouring in from Ireland, England, Germany and Italy. “Did you hear that Saul Bellow died yesterday? “U will get to heaven for this!” “Was JP a footie fan?” “4-2. Blues better.” The Chelsea-Bayern Munich Champions League game has enough goals to keep us alert.

10.20 p.m. Now, we’re getting places. Surging along the Via della Conciliazione we are and up ahead, bathed in light, is the world’s most impressive church. Big screens line the way and thousands are joining in the prayers that pour forth. Along the bottom of the picture, the crawler says “live from the Basilica” and we can see George W. Bush, Laura Bush, George Bush Snr., Bill Clinton and Condi Rice kneeling beside the body, deep in prayer. Jeers go up from the Michael Moore faction but one pilgrim applauds and earns stares. No one challenges him, though.

11.20 p.m. We are in the square! It’s a sea of flags and pennants and emblems borne aloft, mostly Polish, red and white. The imagery is ancient, as if a mighty host of yore was assembling for an encounter that would remake history. Impossible not to be overwhelmed by it all.

12.20 a.m. “Attention! The Basilica will be closed for cleaning between 2 am and 5 pm.” The announcement booming out across the square in Italian, English, French, German, Polish and Spanish fills us with dread. The crowd control has been impressive up to this but it’s not going to be easy to deal with these people if they are locked out within sight of the Grail, to use a Dan Brownism. We are packed against each other now, tired, hungry and thirsty and kept awake and alive by forces beyond our powers.

1.20 a.m. “The Basilica doors will be closing in thirty minutes!” Sprits are high, however. We are certain that our bloc is going to make it. We look back and see thousands upon thousands who won’t be with us. The poor things. How will they endure until 5 am? Where will they get the energy to complete the mission? Pity for them is mixed with satisfaction for our own good fortune. Human vanity and weakness are constant.

1.50 a.m. We enter the Basilica. Too exhausted to appreciate its wonders: The frescoed hallways, the Pieta. Up ahead a blaze of light.

2.10 a.m. Face to face, at last. “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Hamlet (II, ii, 115-117).

Tranquil, he is, despite the bursts of flashes from all kinds of photographic devices. This is how the new pilgrim gathers relics. No piece of the robe, no sliver of bone. A digital image.

Saint John Paul II

Mission accomplished. Time for a quick prayer. No candle to light but the Vatican offers pen and paper where one can list ones wishes for the world and hope that they will be granted. And then we’re out into the morning. Suddenly, one is aware of how sore the feet are and what it is like not to have peed in 15 hours. Time to find a bar, lots are open. Coffee, cognac, a cigarette to round it off. Text a few people, even though they are in bed. No point in sleeping. The need for it seems to have disappeared.


Comments are closed.