God’s Presence

The streets of Rome at 6 AM on Sunday are so deserted I can hardly believe I am still in the same city I went to bed in. A solitary bus thunders in the background, devoid of passengers. All the shops remain shuttered, and the sky provides its own contribution to this inconsistent picture of the Eternal City, looking uncharacteristically glum overhead. I have arisen so early this particular morning in order to visit one of the most revered sites in all of Christendom: St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter's Basilica (101)Why? Well, dear reader, today will be the day of the week that the Pope blesses his family in Christ, and I shall not miss that, not while I have the chance to witness it in person in Rome itself.

As I approach Vatican City with its brown walls and that all-famous, omnipresent dome of St. Peter’s towering in the background, I feel more and more apprehensive; with each step I feel the excitement welling up inside me, threatening to bubble over into tears or a misplaced step any moment. Something seizes control of me. What does it want? What have you to do with me? Follow me, it says. Strange, that sounds a lot like Jesus in the Gospels. I continue forward on the path that has been paved hundreds of years before by other pilgrims such as myself and by Roman construction workers. Walking into the courtyard of St. Peter’s, I feel the spirit of Concord which infects even the five pigeons on the ground across from me. Someone throws a piece of stale bread, and they share it among themselves, nudging it towards each other after taking a few pecks of satisfaction.

But I cannot stop in the square, for the voice and my curiosity pull me continually forward, past the giant obelisk in the middle of the square, past the fountains that flank it on either side, and past the statues of St. Peter and St. Paul right outside the entrance. St. Peter's Basilica (1)Thanking God for my choice of attire (if I were showing any knee, I could not go into the Basilica; my shoulders are of course covered), I step tentatively over the threshold, then stop dead in my tracks. I am overwhelmed by the beauty and awesomeness of this edifice that has been dedicated to the service (and the advertisement) of God’s glory. There is so much to see; so many sculptures, gilded ceilings, altars, deceased saints, frescoes, that I know not where to start. There were similar elements inside the Castel Sant’Angelo right across the way, but they did not inspire the same thoughts or elicit the same emotions are these scenes do now. I have to stop just to take what lies before my eyes at this moment. The ceiling towers so high above me that it hurts just to look up to see it.

But after mental ecstasy such as I have just witnessed, disaster always seems to follow. Today is no different: it starts to rain. At first, I believe it will clear up, it’s only sprinkling. St. Peter's Basilica (114)But the rain doesn’t let up; instead, it turns into a torrential downpour. I have the choice of either staying the cover, which restricts my freedom of movement and leaves me with no view of the soon-coming Pope, or going to get my jacket before from our flat down the way. I choose the latter, and my clothes pay dearly. Thunder booms threateningly as I walk through this horrid weather, raindrops splattering against my bright orange shirt and orange-grey shorts, the cold biting my arms, hands, and nose. I receive incredulous stares from other pedestrians in raincoats with umbrellas as I continue my determined march forward, trying to ignore them. I become saturated in these tiny gifts from heaven, unable to see because I have taken off my glasses to prevent them getting wet, for my shirt will be no good to dry them. Finally I reach home and retrieve the precious jacket with a hood. Now I am able to walk back…a lot dryer.

Waiting, waiting…and waiting. I look across the square, all the time seeing faces. The area around me becomes a colossal, elemental beast composed of human flesh which threatens to swallow me. Like Medusa, it has snakes attached to its head, winding their way from the entrance of the Basilica to the street out in front. The lines are so long to see inside that I nearly throw myself on the ground in thanks to God for allowing me to have the good sense to come so early in the morning. Nearly. Instead, I wander around, waiting for the big moment at noon, the moment for which I have been waiting nearly six hours and I wish would come to pass before I lose my patience.

Then come the screams. Papal servants have just hung the Pope’s seal from one of the windows of his apartment, and the crowd roars its approval. But these roars are not reminiscent of the Colosseum; for while my imagination tells me that stadium goers lusting for more blood sound revolting, the pious cheers of these church-goers around me, hungry for the presence of God (or the Pope, either one will do) sound completely different. I am not horrified by them; on the contrary, their claps and cheers draw me in, and I find myself wanting to join them. St. Peter's Basilica (7)As the crowd gets louder, chanting “Papa Francesco!” at the top of their lungs, their response is the presence of the man himself. The sweet-faced pontiff is greeted by an electrified square, and I even find myself clapping along, though I am not in the least bit Catholic. The infectious nature of the joy abounding in the square crosses faith, cultures, and races as the Pope salutes people from such faraway countries as Argentina and the Philippines who have come all this way to see their beloved Papa.

Though the Pope’s address and blessing lasts only a few minutes (about fifteen to be exact), it leaves a lasting impression on all in attendance, most of all me. It is not the words themselves that affect me (how can they, they’re in Italian!); rather, it is the demeanor, life, and example of this man, and being able to see him for the first time is truly life-changing. As he stands in the window, a tiny figure far from view (except on the jumbotron screens below), my perception of the papacy changes.St. Peter's Basilica (81)The way Pope Francis inspires the people around me gives me fresh hope that he may truly be a force for good in the world. Of course, his other activities don’t hurt. Thus concludes my visit to St. Peter’s. It has been enlightening, enjoyable, and exhausting all in one. But above all, I think it has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had on this entire trip to Europe; for in this particularly excursion, I believe I have truly felt God’s presence.

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