Every Sunday, thousands of people gather in St. Peter’s Square. Their faces are filled with anticipation, excitement, and joy. More often than not, a vibrant band is playing music and drums are thumping to various beats. Banners are waving, flags are unfurled. Dispersed throughout the square are numerous wildly attired groups practicing chants. Laypeople, priests, religious, random tourists, souvenir hawkers, roving journalists—all of them are making their preparations, glancing furtively up into the air, hoping to see a flash of white pass in the miniscule blackness that has opened its windows to the world. The anticipation builds; one can sense that the crowd is about to erupt. Suddenly, there is movement in the window; a curtain is rustled, and all at once the deafening roar of a delighted people can be heard throughout Rome, for our Holy Father has just appeared to lead the faithful in prayer.
I know it sounds a bit absurd, but the moment you first spot that flash of white in the window, it’s as if all of your worries disappear. Even the most skeptical and reluctant among those assembled find themselves thunderously clapping and shouting, tears in their eyes. He is surprisingly far away; his body barely filling a quarter of the enormous frame. He is nothing more than a white dot in the window, but he is our Holy Father, the Successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ, and the leader of the Universal Church. And he is right there!
The first time I saw the Pope was in 2000 at a Wednesday Audience. I was in Rome as a tourist, before I had "reverted" to actually living my Catholic faith. Despite my practical agnosticism, I desperately wanted to see the Pope. So we went very early, and we fought for wonderful seats—the first row in the square. We were completely surrounded by Polish nuns who evidently were in fits of ecstasy just thinking of seeing Pope John Paul II. I could appreciate the importance of this opportunity for these 200 women; what I did not anticipate was the magnitude of their reaction. As the Pope turned a corner in the square and drove up the center aisle, I was literally crushed against the railing by screaming religious. As the Popemobile grew closer, I lost my footing and slipped to the ground. Moments later, I was being trampled by elated nuns! As the Popemobile passed, they began singing, and one of the shorter ones decided to use my head as a footstool. Fortunately for them, but unfortunately for my head, the Pope stopped to listen to what must have been for him an absolutely heartwarming Polish tune. I admit, even from my decidedly more terrestrial position, the song sounded nice. The Pope moved on, and I recovered from the cobblestones while the giggling gaggle of nuns rejoiced, oblivious to my just-ended plight.
I should have been upset. But you know what? I got to see the Pope’s foot up close, and I was so excited that my vengeful thoughts vaporized. Plus, I did get an excellent picture of half of my face and my arm desperately flailing under the stampede with the Pope waving. I was in a picture with the Pope! Sort of.
Why is it that we go nuts when we meet the Holy Father? Millions of people each year come to see the Pope. People all over the world who have had the incredible opportunity to touch him or kiss his ring proudly display the pictures in their homes and offices. Why is this? What is his draw?
I have asked myself this question endlessly, and the only response I have is supernatural. We don’t go gaga for Cardinals or Monsignors; it’s just the Pope that gets this treatment. The simple fact is, he is the representative of Christ on Earth—his Vicar, and head of the Church. With such a position comes a grace to which we are attracted. The Holy Father stands as the representative of a two-millennium tradition. He stands as St. Peter, the keeper of the keys even today. The Pope is tangible evidence of the ongoing intervention of God in the world.
On the front façade of the Basilica of St. Peter, there is a sculpture of Jesus giving the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter. Just under that relief, on the main door to the Basilica, there is another of Peter handing the keys to one of his successors. The Pope is one of the visible signs—perhaps the most recognizable in the world—that our Lord will never abandon the Church: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18). The power entrusted to Peter by Jesus Christ has been faithfully transmitted through the Catholic Church for 2000 years. Just as our faith has been preserved and passed on to us by our parents and their parents, the authority of Peter has been preserved and transmitted through the succession of Popes. For as long as this world endures, the Catholic Church will be led by the successor of St. Peter, who leads us nowhere if not to heaven.
When the little white dot appears in the window, no matter how many times I have seen him, my eyes moisten, because I am looking at the man chosen by Christ to lead me to heaven, the man who shepherds my soul and who wants me to know and to love Jesus Christ, the man who suffers human failings like the rest of us but wears the white glory of having been chosen by Christ.
Our Holy Father goes this week to the Holy Land. Please remember to pray for him, for his mission, for his holiness, and for his health. I sincerely hope that you get to see that little white dot in the window someday. Long live the Pope, and God bless the Church!
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.