Il papa!


This afternoon, the Pope gave Ash Wednesday mass at the Church of Santa Sabina. It’s a 5th century building which, incidentally, is a just up the street from where I’m living. So I wondered on over there around 4:25 to see if I could catch a glimpse of Benedict XVI as he arrived for the 4:30 ceremony. There was some sort of JumboTron set up outside the church — a weird fusion of 21th century and late Roman architecture — which would be simulcasting the event, and I was perfectly content to settle down in one of the chairs and lose myself in spiritual glow of the TV. A bit of consolation for those of us that hadn’t obtained tickets to enter the church.

But right as I was making myself comfortable, a couple of other students on the same program as me came down the aisle at a brisk pace. “We’re going to try to get inside, come with us.”

Er, okay.

There was some semblance of a line forming, with most of the people wielding these blue slips of paper which I could only assume were tickets. The line passed through a security checkpoint, under the watchful supervision of the Swiss Guard. Feeling a bit cavalier, I decided to just stay in the line. What’s the worst that could happen: I get turned back at the door? Then I’d just be in the same position I was in before. A zero-sum game of sorts.


To my surprise, I had absolutely no problems getting in. There I stood, in this monumental fifth century church. The chanting starts. The massive doors open and the procession of the clergy begins. First are dozens of priests, clearly from all corners of the world, clad in black and white. Then the bishops, in their purple regalia. The excitement in the atmosphere was barometric as this crescendo of color reached its climax. Red. Cardinals.

And then came the purple and gold. The Pope. He smiled and silently blessed as he proceeded to the altar, immune to the flashing cameras.


The mass lasted about an hour and a half. I couldn’t tell you what the homily was about, as it was all in Italian, but that didn’t bother me. Truly, it would have been awesome to be able to understand what the Pope was saying, if only to commune with such a brilliant philosophical mind. But no matter; I was swept up in the moment, absorbed by the experience. Ashes were given, then the Eucharist. All was well.

The mass ended, and the clergy made their way back up the aisle, smiling and shaking hands with the enthusiastic laity. I hung around a while, silently observing, before exiting the church. The experience was visceral. Clergy, everywhere. Priests, bishops, cardinals – not being whisked away, on the other side of some barrier, but right there, amongst the people. Where they should be; where they need to be.

And with that, I meandered on home through the Roman night, taking the long route, reflecting on all that had passed, finding solace in the notion that my stay in Rome has just begun.


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