When the prayers began before the Mass of Beatification, the sky was a steely grey. That morning at 5 a.m., the outlook had been grim, with heavy clouds threatening the hills outside of the city. But, away we went, fortunate in some ways to not have been required to keep vigil all night, and in other ways somehow missing the experience of remaining awake in prayer, as did our Lord so many times. The air was chilly, but not uncomfortable.
No matter the expectation ahead of time, there is nothing I can recall quite as awe-inspiring as the sight of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims filling St. Peter’s Square and the Via Conciliazione at seven in the morning. I had been out the previous evening, wandering around the streets near the Vatican. Originally I had attempted to take a bus across the city, returning from an evening with a pilgrim group from the United States, but the streets were so congested that it proved faster — and more rewarding — to walk.
Groups of pilgrims were filing calmly down the streets of Rome, many with candles in their hands, singing songs in languages I knew not and praying rosaries. Somehow in the few days before the Beatification, all of the hotel rooms in the city had filled to capacity, and yet Rome had never been more courteous. These were not crowds of tourists; they were pilgrims on the journey to see the last step before that supreme crowning of glory which is sanctification.
St. Gregory of Nyssa once wrote a short treatise on pilgrimages. In it, he is a little severe on pilgrims. He considers the problem of being overly attached to places and to things, arguing rightly that any spiritual benefit that can accrue to a person from a pilgrimage is perfectly available through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in the normal life. He even warns of the spiritual dangers in pilgrimages, especially that a person overly concerned with traveling to holy places or holy events can lose their own soul by externalizing their faith too greatly and forgetting the eternal indwelling of the Spirit in each person. Every time I make plans to make some pilgrimage, however great or small, Gregory of Nyssa’s words creep into my mind.
As I walked towards St. Peter’s on Saturday night in the middle of a large group of Polish youth (who would hear nothing of me leaving), I thought of Nyssa’s words. Everywhere I turned, different groups composed mainly of young people greeted me with smiles and joy and not a few tears. I was asked to bless objects, to pray the rosary, and to hear a number of confessions (one request I cannot yet grant…but soon enough!). These people were on pilgrimage. They were literally just in from Krakow or Prague or Bratislava or Minsk or Kiev or wherever, and they were here at the end of long and difficult journeys to spend the night near St. Peter’s and to hear the word beatus. Amazingly, most of them had no expectation whatsoever of even making it into the square or even to a place where they could see. They just wanted to be near.
I was chastened a little by this faith, by this love. I have had such magnificent blessings since I have been in Rome. I can see the Holy Father every week at the Angelus; I can attend any Papal event I choose; I have had the opportunity to sing the Gospel at three Papal Masses. But I have never, I must admit, loved a Pope so much that I would hitchhike or travel standing-room-only on a bus or a train thousands of miles only to sleep outdoors all night with no food or adequate bathrooms only to stand for eight to ten hours just to have the opportunity — the possibility — of hearing faint echoes of the Mass of Beatification. I couldn’t believe the love that surrounded me in the actions of these Polish youth who adopted me into their pilgrimage for the last kilometer or two as they approached the bridge on which they would keep vigil.
I of course returned to my seminary. I didn’t sleep much: I kept thinking of all those young people and how I really would have loved to hear their confessions — how I perhaps should have stayed with them that night.
The next morning, I made my way to the square. By some miracle, I had a ticket to the clerical section, which meant that unlike my Polish friends from the night before, I only had to show up three or four hours early. When we entered the square and turned around, the sight was indescribable. Hundreds of thousands of people waving flags and singing songs. They had been standing in the streets and the square since about 3:30 a.m. when the congestion got so bad in Rome that they had to open up the viewing areas, which were not supposed to open until much later in the morning.
I sat in my seat, prayed for a couple of hours, and read one of John Paul II’s books. When the actual moment of beatification came, I didn’t think I could ever see anything more beautiful and spectacular than the sea of Polish flags waving behind me along with the roar of the crowd. I turned to the deacon sitting next to me and screamed something to the effect of “They will be singing the entire Mass!”
But I was wrong. After the actual Beatification rite, before we began the Gloria, an announcement was made in several languages requesting that as we entered into the Eucharistic portion of the celebration that we observe a reverent silence and take down all flags and banners.
The roar of crowds is a spectacular thing. At St. Peter’s, the roar can actually be felt from where the Pope is: it hits him like a wave. The movement of the people actually creates a wind effect. The noise is spectacular: it has a depth that moves with the wind and gets in your bones. It’s hard not to be excited in an excited crowd, and it’s hard not to scream when they do. I have heard before that there is nothing more impressive than the roar of the crowd at St. Peter’s.
But there is. It’s the silence of the crowd at St. Peter’s. This was no Roman mob: in the moments of reflection after Pope Benedict’s homily and after communion, there wasn’t a peep from the people. St. Peter’s stood silent. But not just St. Peter’s — all of that section of Rome, and probably all of the people watching on television. These were pilgrims. They were here to honor John Paul II, but more important was the celebration of the Eucharist and the worship of God.
I remember thinking after communion about Gregory of Nyssa, and I thanked God for the opportunity to be there — to be at the event which will probably be the biggest of my life. And I mentioned to Gregory that he needn’t be worried about this crowd. Every crowd in the world can scream. Only a crowd filled with the Holy Spirit can experience such an exuberant, superabundant and exhilarating joy that it can only be expressed in contemplative silence.
Thank you Blessed John Paul II. Thank you for sharing your love of God. Thank you for your amazing mind. Thank you for your letters to priests. Thank you for your joy. Thank you for your suffering — for showing the world how to carry the cross with joy and how to die. Thank you for seeing so much sanctity in the modern world. Thank you for that mischievous glint in your eye and the happy glow of your face. I shall never forget your beatification, and I pray that your canonization will come in my lifetime — hopefully soon. Please pray for our sanctification, for our world — that we may love the world in the way that you did and that we may find Christ in contemplative prayer as well as in actions to help our neighbor.
Thank you Blessed John Paul. The world loves you. I love you. Santo Subito!