The Canoninzation Chronicles 2014

As my seventh (yes, 7th) Papal Mass, and my twenty-sixth (yes, 26th) trip to Rome overall, I am somewhat of a veteran pilgrim to the Eternal City. One of my previous attendances was the Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday 2013, when Pope Francis was officially seated on the Roman cathedra and took possession of the Lateran Basilica. As in this week’s canonization Mass, the Pope at his insediamento dispensed with the usual general admission tickets (which are always free– just quite scarce) and opened the Lateran on a first come, first served basis. On the ground level, that decision translated into a headache for law enforcement and disorder for the pilgrims who jockeyed aggressively and uncharitably for admission.

Because of the large number of pilgrims expected for the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II, Francis again dispensed with the general admission tickets, except this time the event saw millions in the streets of Rome. This meant that the disorder I witnessed at the Lateran on Divine Mercy Sunday 2013 would turn into pure chaos for the canonizations. By the time I arrived on Friday (the 25th), Rome was already overflowing with Poles and Bergamaschi, with thousands of them already setting up camp on the streets near Castel Sant’Angelo to get in the front of the lines. Law enforcement quickly dispersed these early eager people and told them to return only on Saturday evening.Having made the trip to Rome with a priest, we decided to begin our stakeout around 9 PM on Saturday night (26 April), 11 hours before the scheduled beginning of Mass. When we arrived at Castel Sant’Angelo, the area covering Ponte Sant’Angelo, Ponte Amadeo, the stretch of the Lungotevere running between them, and all the way to the beginning of the Conciliazione was packed full of pilgrims with folding chairs, roll-up mattresses, and tents. Getting in line here would be futile. Earlier on Friday, we received a tip from an auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia that pilgrims would not be funneled directly from the beginning of the Conciliazione but from one of the side streets perpendicular to the Conciliazione. So, we shrewdly walked around the north side of Castel Sant’Angelo– against the majority of pedestrian traffic– and I led us all the way to Via della Traspontina, which intersects the east-west running Conciliazione on the north side. Of course, the here too the streets were packed with people who had already pitched camps– but at least we were already a quarter of the way to the Vatican from the Tiber, much closer than those who decided to line up at Castel Sant’Angelo.

The extraordinary circumstances of this night abolished any personal space. From every direction, individuals and groups tried to squeeze and inch their way ever closer to the police barricades. Even the patient ones content with their current spots were pushed and shoved about by the zealous. If one was not already seated, one could find no space to sit. You would have to stand in awkward stances and positions dictated by the position of people around you, then you would have to adjust when you were nudged or pushed whither and hither like the tiniest minnow in a sea of sharks. Around 10 PM, my priest friend couldn’t take it anymore, and unfortunately he decided to leave.

There, on Via della Traspontina, I observed priests young and old with laypersons of all ages and nationalities, singing many popular hymns together, despite language barriers. Accompanied by slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitars, I would have certainly cringed if I heard them at a Mass, for they inevitably bring more attention to the cantors and musicians; but here, in the blessed spontaneity of this chaotic, extra-liturgical moment, I recognized the rightful place of such modernized pop hymns. Children and adults joined as one chorus in the songs of various tongues in an authentic expression of the Spirit.

Around 11 PM, I bumped (quite literally) into five people a group from the youth organization Juventutem whom I had met on Friday! They had arrived in the crowd almost two hours after I did, but they had squeaked their way to my position. halfway down Via della Traspontina. We decided to stick out the rest of the ordeal together. The Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary and a Divine Mercy Chaplet helped to pass the time.

If I remember correctly, around 12:30 AM on the 27th, the police opened the Via della Conciliazione for the pilgrims, in order to alleviate the pressure off the surrounding streets which by then been flooded by even greater throngs extending across the Tiber. The crowd moved quickly to fill the void. My group stuck together, holding onto each other in the form of a chain, and resolutely proceeded with great haste towards the Vatican. In this formation we were able to force our way past a great many people, including those who had set up chairs and tents and did not expect to move so soon. We arrived almost to the end of the Conciliazione, a mere 50 meters from Piazza Pio XII (the antechamber to Piazza San Pietro) before we stopped. The sight of the great basilica so early in the morning was a welcome relief, for we realized that we would be in the piazza for Mass!

Our view of the Basilica from our spot on the Via della Conciliazione
approximately 1:30 AM

At 5:30 PM, Piazza San Pietro finally opened. For the sake of good order, law enforcement did an excellent job of only letting a few hundred people trickle into the Church at one time, then forcefully imposing the barricades on would-be sneakers-by to avert any stampedes. Although from the spot on the Conciliazione where we waited with cramped, tired legs (for over four hours) stood less than 200 meters from the edge of Piazza San Pietro, the painstaking security measures ensured that we didn’t get into the Piazza after 7 AM. The important thing, however, is that we got in.

Once in the Piazza, we were able to sit and stretch our legs, bringing much needed respite. We had no chairs– all the seated sections closest to the altar were already full– but our spot was in an area where the topography rises slightly above the ground level of the center of the Piazza, so we were not totally obscured. The photo below was taken around 7:30 AM on Sunday; the altar is blocked here, but by the time Mass started, the view improved drastically; some of those in front of us tried to get closer and thus went unwittingly to lower elevations, where they got fantastic views of the backs of pilgrim heads and large Polish flags– but little of the Pope.

View at 7:30 AM

Beginning at 9:00 AM, the Piazza was led in a recitation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Interspersed between the decades were short readings taken from allocutions of either John Paul II or John XXIII. The actual chaplet prayers were mostly sung (in Italian), lasting until around 9:30.

Around 09:40, the bells of St. Peter began to toll. People wondered why, until, to great jubilation, Pope Benedict XVI appeared, vested to concelebrate, led to his chair by Archbishop Ganswein and another cerimoniere. The entire Piazza ascended to its feet and rendered a raucous ovation to Papa Ratzinger. A similar homage took place when, after incensing the altar, Pope Francis greeted his beloved predecessor.

The canonization rite, entirely in Latin, followed the rubrics restored by Benedict XVI: Angelo Cardinal Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, formally petitioned the Holy Father three times to enroll into the list of Saints (Sanctorum catalogo adscribi) the Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II. A collect-style prayer from the Pope to God the Father followed the first petition, the Veni Creator followed the second, and finally, the Pope pronounced the canonization formula after the third petition. A loud, extended applause filled the Piazza as the Pope formally enrolled Wojtyla and Roncalli among the Saints auctoritate Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, sanctorum apostolorum Petri et Pauli, ac sua. Rain was forecasted for the day precisely when Mass was scheduled, and canopies were assembled over the heads of the Cardinals and foreign dignitaries as a precaution, and a few light showers were felt during the initial procession. But as soon as the Pope pronounced the canonization formula– I swear on my life– the clouds opened and the sun shone brightly upon the Piazza. It did not rain for the rest of Mass.

The homily was short and succinct; one can read them here: [Italian; English, with some idiosyncratic renderings]. One major point to take away, however, included a reference to the Synod on the Family convoked by Francis and scheduled to meet this October in Rome. As part of the February 2014 Consistory, the Cardinals discussed the future Synod and certain pastoral approaches to persons in irregular family situations, including the hot-button topic of reception of Holy Communion by remarried divorcees. At this Consistory, Cardinal Kasper gave a much-publicized, though strange and theologically inconsistent proposal on how to admit people in such situations to the Eucharist. In the past weeks, Pope Francis has publicly thanked Kasper for his contribution to the debate, but has always stopped short of endorsing the Cardinal’s ideas. Now, canonizing John Paul II as the “Pope of the Family” and linking his intercession to the success of the upcoming Synod, we get a hint that perhaps Kasper and his ilk (an overwhelmed minority in the Sacred College) may be disappointed, for John Paul II was consistently adamant about both the sanctity of the Eucharist and the sanctity of marriage. Pope Francis in his homily said:

In questo servizio al Popolo di Dio, san Giovanni Paolo II è stato il Papa della famiglia. Così lui stesso, una volta, disse che avrebbe voluto essere ricordato, come il Papa della famiglia. Mi piace sottolinearlo mentre stiamo vivendo un cammino sinodale sulla famiglia e con le famiglie, un cammino che sicuramente dal Cielo lui accompagna e sostiene.

In this service to the People of God, Saint John Paul II was the Pope of the family. He had once said of himself that he wanted to be remembered as Pope of the family. I want to emphasize this as we continue on the path toward the Synod on the family and with families, a path which he surely accompanies and sustains from Heaven. (my rendering)

Wojtyla was the Pope of Evangelium Vitae, the Pope of Familiaris Consortio, the Pope who upheld Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, the Pope who promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its doctrine on marriage– all teachings that Kasper has tried to subvert in one subtle form or another. The fear of tradition-minded Catholics might be allayed when one considers that, by allowing much exposure for Kasper’s ideas, the Pope cannot be accused of stifling debate when, as we should expect, the Synod upholds the perennial teaching and praxis of the Church, which comes from Christ and the Apostles.

Back to the Mass: objectively speaking, the homily was the weakest canonization homily I’ve ever heard. When I attended Benedict XVI’s canonization of seven saints in October 2012, he delivered a homily not only with his characteristic theological depth, but spoke about each of the new saints in the language of their nations. Francis’ short reflection, entirely in Italian, did not even give the customary brief biographical information which is usual at such events. Instead, he began pretty much in medias res, contrasting the unbelief of Thomas with the unshakable faith of Wojtyla and Roncalli in the wounded yet risen Christ.

This is not a bad thing! There is nothing Francis could have said about the new saints’ lives and pontificates that the people in the Piazza– and people across the world– did not already know. The most important phrase that Francis pronounced at Mass could not have been words he wrote, but words that belong to the whole Church in her totality and majestic plurality– hence the pluralis majestatis:

…Sanctos esse decernimus et definimus,
ac Sanctorum catalogo adscribimus…
in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.

for since Francis pronounced those words, we can now say:Sancte Ioanne et Sancte Ioanne Paule, orate pro nobis. Amen.

1 Comment on The Canoninzation Chronicles 2014

  1. Thanks Joey for your usual astute commentary. Special thanks for giving us a glimpse of this historic event and enduring the throngs at St. Peter's! Please continue your wonderful reports as long as possible.

Leave a Reply