Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Pope's Last Stand: the final papal audience of Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI's final audience, St. Peter's Square, 27 February 2013

On the night of the 1st of April 2005, barely six months after moving to Rome, I stood with my roommates in St. Peter’s Square, holding vigil with thousands of others for Pope John Paul II. It was the night before he died, and the last full day of his papacy.

Today, in strangely parallel yet contrasting circumstances, I stood in St. Peter’s Square on the last full day of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy. As you can imagine, the mood in the crowd was completely different: lighthearted, affectionate, nostalgic perhaps, but without a trace of grief or fear. And no surprise why: no one had died.

"Holy Father, we love you"

On that April night back in 2005, the warm spring air was heavy with collective grief. Nuns from nearly every nation prayed the rosary, young couples cried into each other’s shoulders, Latin American students sang and lit candles. And everyone’s eyes were fixed upon the Pope’s window where his light shined on, late into the night. We all expected it to be snuffed out at any moment, signifying that John Paul had breathed his last, and we were ready for the inevitable wail that would rise up from the crowd. But the light was still burning when my friends and I made our way back home.

The next evening, John Paul did die, and we returned to the square once more. Strangely, the atmosphere was different. It was as if the oppressive grief of the night before had lifted, and been replaced with a sense of peace, a knowledge that the beloved pontiff was no longer in pain. The thousands of faithful seemed filled with a sense of quiet hope.

I took some poignant photos that I would love to share with you, but alas, they were lost when I accidentally smashed my external hard drive. (Major technology fail.) Ah well, at least I have the memories, which are surprisingly vivid.

Nearly eight years later, once again I got to witness the end of a papacy, albeit a much less painful end for many Catholics. But what was, for me, so thrilling about being there was the knowledge that I was witnessing history. After all, it has been over seven centuries since a pope has voluntarily resigned, and everyone is curious about how things will play out in the next few weeks as a conclave unlike any other (with the previous pope still alive) approaches.

Walking down Via della Lungara toward St. Peter's to see the pope's final appearance

As I left my apartment around 8:30 this morning, without realizing the significance of it, my feet led me along Via della Lungara, which was originally known as Via Sancta, since it led directly from Trastevere to the Vatican, and was a well-trod route for pilgrims heading to St. Peter's. It was an ancient Roman road that was enlarged, coincidentally, by our good friend Pope Alexander VI Borgia. Is it my imagination or does il papa cattivo keep popping up everywhere I turn?

Once within sight of the Vatican, I met up with my partner in crime, Theresa, and we braced ourselves to enter the scrum. Neither of us like to be in a big crowd, but our need to be part of history triumphed over our agoraphobia and we heartily braved the masses.

Upwards of 150,000 people came to say goodbye to Benedict XVI

It was actually not as bad as I had expected. It was just after nine and the square was still filling up, so we drifted toward the left of the square's two fountains, the one built by Gianlorenzo Bernini to match Carlo Maderno's earlier one on the right (north) side. As luck would have it, the fountain was off and bone dry. Several people and a few journalists were standing up on the edge of the fountain, so we figured, why not? We pulled ourselves up, thinking we would just take the opportunity to snap a few photos over the heads of the rest of the crowd, but it was so nice up there, and so much less crowded than below, that we ended up staying there for the entire audience.

You never realize how huge those fountains are until you are actually standing inside one of them.

This cute French family was climbing up the fountain to get the best possible view.

We had a panoramic view of the entire square, and the Pope himself, under his canopy, was in our direct line of sight, although little more than a tiny white dot from where we stood. He rode past, not far away, in his little Pope-mobile, and we would have been able to get a very good look at him, had it not been for all those darned pilgrims and their cumbersome banners. 

So much for our view!

The soon-to-be-ex-pope spoke for a considerable amount of time in his timid, accented Italian, reiterating his promise that he will not abandon the church, but will be serving it in a new way. The crowd was resplendent, powerfully shouting "Vivat Papam" in chorus and handing him babies to kiss as he drove through the throngs. Flags from seemingly every nation waved, from Spain to the United States to China to Ghana to Brunei to Palastine. The sun shined brilliantly all morning and it seemed much more like April than February, even for Rome. The difference in the two "last days" that I experienced was stark. The first, somber and grief-ridden; the second, joyful and full of hope for the future. And it struck me that perhaps it's silly to continue a tradition in which the pope, elected already an old man, should be expected to serve until his dying breath. The modern life expectancy means a pope could be made to languish for decades of ill health and frailty, all the while expected to make momentous decisions and provide leadership for billions of people. 

To be honest, I haven't completely made my mind up as to how I feel about the pope's decision, but a little change certainly couldn't hurt.

As smug as I was with my prime spot, my maritino, as usual, found a way to top it. His position was just slightly better than mine, and I have him to thank for these last three photos.

Benedict XVI last popemobile
Benedict XVI's last ride in his Pope-mobile

Benedict XVI final audience
Benedict XVI's final papal appearance

All photos by author and friends
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