Droves of Italians flocked to St. Peter’s Square this morning to give Pope Benedict XVI the welcome he was denied this week at La Sapienza University.
In response to an invitation issued earlier this week by the Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, close to 200,000 people, some traveling long distances, gathered to express solidarity with Pope Benedict.
Two days before Pope Benedict XVI was to address students and faculty at the University's 2008 opening ceremony last Thursday, a small group of students and professors launched a stormy protest, accusing the Pope of being opposed to science based on a quote taken out of context in a discourse by then Cardinal Ratzinger more than a decade ago. The Holy See cancelled the Pope's visit to La Sapienza after students threatened to disrupt his speech with loud music and protests.
Among those who gathered in the square were some who, though not Catholic, were outraged that a small few could suppress freedom of free speech.
Others, including Dr. Sylvia Boca, a graduate of La Sapienza, wanted to show the Holy Father that they were part of a vast majority of people at La Sapienza University who respect the Pope and were looking forward to the honor of his presence.
As the bells announced noon, the Pope appeared in the window to greet a cheering crowd. Holding banners and waving flags, they shouted, "You did not come to us, so we've come to you!"
Following his Angelus address on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Benedict XVI turned to the cheering crowd, and expressed his heartfelt gratitude for supporting him. He also recounted the events of the last week that led him to decline the invitation to speak at La Sapienza.
"I desire first of all to greet young people from the university, professors and all of you who have come today in such numbers to St Peter Square to participate in the prayer of the Angelus and to express your solidarity."
He also saluted Cardinal Ruini who urged Italians to show their support, as well as cardinals and curial officials perched just outside the doors of St. Peter Basilica.
Pope Benedict recounted briefly the events of the last week. "As you know, he said, I willingly accepted the invitation extended to me last Thursday. I know this university well and am fond of the students: every year on various occasions they meet me at the Vatican together with their colleagues from other universities. Unfortunately, as is well known, he said, the atmosphere that was created made my presence inadvisable. Still, I wanted to send the text I prepared for the occasion."
Speaking as a professor of his love for the university, the Holy Father explained, "I am very much connected to the university environment, which was my world for many years, by my love for the search for truth, through debated, frank dialogue and respect for the others' positions. This is also the mission of the Church, charged with faithfully following Jesus, the Author of life, truth and love."
The Holy Father said that as a professor "emeritus" he encourages all students to be always respectful of the opinions of others, and to search always for the truth and goodness in a spirit that is free and responsible.
In the end, he said that perhaps the unfortunate circumstances of the last week were for the best, since it drew so many people together in spirit of unity and solidarity that was fitting.