Monday, April 2, 2007


Today's guest blogger is Fr. O from the Diocese of Cleveland (with whom I was in the seminary) and who is now studying in Rome with the aim of becoming a professor at our seminary. (He is also a really cool guy.) Here is his Palm Sunday experience in Rome:

I left my house with a few other priests at 7:45 a.m. for the 25 minute walk to St. Peter’s. The streets were blissfully quiet at that hour, so we didn’t have to dodge any speeding Smart Cars or motorini (scooters) like we normally do. The rising sun and swiftly moving clouds promised great weather for Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square. Making our way up the Via della Conciliazione, we saw a pretty good crowed already gathered in Piazza San Pietro, even though Mass would not begin for almost another hour and a half.

Turning to the right, we made our way to the Bronze Doors, where we were greeted with a salute by a couple of Swiss Guards. Those guys have amazingly cool uniforms, I must say. Talk about a fashion that never goes out of style. We showed them our little blue tickets - invitations to help distribute the Eucharist at this Mass. They led us into the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, but in a way I had never seen it. There were no pilgrims or tourists inside; no lights or fanfare. This is perhaps the greatest church building in all of Christendom. But for us on this day, it was our sacristy. The living church was gathering in the piazza outside.

We went into the Blessed Sacrament chapel, where a hundred or so other priests from all over the world were assembled. We were given a white surplice, a red stole, and a few last minute instructions in Italian, and then we waited there in prayerful silence until it was time for us to line up in procession.

As the line began to form, I ended up being positioned right next to Fr. Robert Barron, a priest from Chicago who happens to be one of my favorite theologian/authors. I have been reading his book “And Now I See” for my Lenten reflections. It’s really a great book (as I mentioned to him); I highly recommend it.

The procession formed in the great hallway leading to the Bronze doors. After the incense, candles, and cross, there was a large group of young men and women holding huge palm branches. We (the hundred fifty or so priests) were after them, holding large olive branches. Bishops and Cardinals assembled after us, holding large palm branches that had been elaborately woven into ornate shapes. Usually people weave their palms like this during the homily on Palm Sunday, but I guess they didn’t want a bunch of Cardinals fidgeting with their palms during the Pope’s homily, so they took the liberty of doing this for them. Just kidding, Cardinals. I knew you would be paying attention.

Finally, the first part of the procession began. We marched out the doors and down the center of the Piazza to the huge obelisk that rises in the center. A stage had been set up there for the proclamation of the first Gospel for that liturgy. It was really a strange sensation walking through the crowd like that, with people from all over the world pressing up against the wooden barricades, waiting for the glimpse of the Holy Father. For most, this would be the only chance they would ever have to see him “in real life”. You can see that fact in their eyes; their enthusiasm is palpable. It is obvious when Pope Benedict finally enters the piazza, because I hear the sounds of cheering behind me. He makes his way through the throng of faithful Catholics, happy to see their devotion to Christ as they sway their palms. I’m happy for them to have this opportunity, and I smile as I remember the first time I saw Pope John Paul. Denver, Colorado, 1993 – World Youth Day. It’s a memory that will be treasured for a lifetime.

After the Gospel is proclaimed, we proceed back up the center aisle and up the steps to the canopy covered sanctuary. On the way up the steps, I made a funny observation. To bring some color to the sanctuary area, they had laid down some sod on either side of the aisle going up the ramp to the sanctuary. But it wasn’t just sod. It was actually different kinds of lettuce, with a sod border. When you see it on TV or from out in the piazza, it just looks like nice geometric shapes of greenery. But up close, it kind of made me want a salad just then. Hold that thought ‘til after Mass.

As I entered the sanctuary, I walked past a row of dignitaries - people wearing gowns and tuxedoes, some with medals on their lapels or sashes across their chests, others with unique ethnic garb. They reminded me of the fact that our church is poised to be a major influence in international relations. It made me want to pray more for our pope, because he and his staff are faced with some incredible challenges and opportunities on the world stage.

I took my place behind the dignitaries, about 30 feet from the altar on the right side. It was a beautiful morning for an outdoor liturgy, with bright sunshine and a gentle cool breeze. The first reading is proclaimed in English with an Australian accent. The psalm is in Italian, and the second reading in Spanish. Then we stand for the Gospel. The passion is chanted beautifully by three voices in Italian. It takes a long time to get through it, and my back is a little sore by the time it’s done. But as I sit to listen to the Pope’s homily, I notice the Swiss Guards. They don’t get to sit down. They remain at attention for the entire Mass. The must do some pretty intense lower back exercises for training. Either that, or they have really excellent shoes. I don’t envy them at that moment, but I still dig the uniform. One of them is standing only five feet away from me. I wonder if they are trained to use those halberds and broadswords in combat?

My attention snaps back to Pope Benedict as he begins his homily. Taking a page from John Paul’s playbook, he addresses the homily squarely at the youth. Digging into his own playbook, he chooses two of his favorite themes: truth and love. He is both compassionate and challenging as he comments on the procession of palms and on Psalm 24. “What does ‘the following of Christ’ mean concretely? It has to do with an interior change of life. It demands that I no longer be closed in considering my self-realization as the principal purpose of my life. We are talking about the choice between living for myself and giving myself – for what is greater. And let us understand that truth and love are not abstract values; in Jesus Christ they have become a person. Following him, I enter into the service of truth and love. Losing myself, I find myself.” Such a tremendous mind and pastoral heart. I thank God for the gift of his leadership, and ask for the grace to respond generously to his words.

Now comes the reason why I have such a good seat. It’s time to work to earn my place. During the creed, we are ushered back into the vestibule of the basilica where each priest is given a ciborium full of bread for the Eucharist. At the appropriate time, we are led out to the sanctuary and lined up behind the altar. For the entire Eucharistic prayer, I stand about 15 feet behind the Pope, seeing the same thing he sees. The piazza is filled with pilgrims from all over the world. He chooses the third Eucharistic prayer. At one point in that prayer, there is a line that says, “Father, hear the prayers of the family you have gathered here before you. In mercy and love, unite all of your children, wherever they may be.” I have read this myself a thousand times, but now, looking out at this massive international crowd with their palms swaying in the late morning sun, these words have never seemed more poignant to me.

As everyone begins to pray the Our Father, we are ushered out to points all over the piazza to distribute the Eucharist. This is not a neat and easy thing. People are packed into the spaces between the wooden barricades marking the aisles, and they have to find a way to get to us as we stand in the aisle on the other side of the barricade. The result was at first a little unsettling for me. It sort of reminded me of watching carp in a feeding pond, as the people “swam” over each other attempting to get close enough for me to reach them. But looking deeper, I noticed a strange beauty in their eyes. These people are all here because they are hungry for Christ. It seemed to me that they were thinking, “being here at St. Peter’s is beautiful, and it’s pretty cool to see Pope Benedict in real life, but please don’t walk away until I’ve had a chance to receive Jesus!!” Don’t worry, I won’t. Take your time.

After Communion, I make my way back into the Eucharistic chapel of the basilica, where I deposit my empty ciborium and take off my stole and surplice. I stop for a moment to look around the empty basilica – such a rare opportunity to see it like this – before I head back outside.

At the end of the Mass, the Pope begins addressing the youth of the world with personal messages in many languages. He speaks to the pilgrims in English, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, and Italian (there may have also been others; he has already begun this by the time I got back outside). Each new language inspires cheers from different sections of the crowd, with the Italians responding the loudest. This is their town, after all. There is an obvious joy in the Holy Father’s voice that can be detected no matter what language he is speaking. And when he finishes, that joy is returned in the cheers of thousands of pilgrims. Many start chanting, “Benedetto!” Our shy Pope – very different than John Paul in this regard – graciously quiets them down. “Thank you for your enthusiasm,” he says with a smile on his face, “but now we must pray the Angelus. Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae...” And so we return to prayer with him.

As the recessional hymn begins, a white truck with a raised chair in the back pulls up behind the altar. I’ve seen the “popemobile” before, but I’ve never watched him get in. The chair swivels around, and he climbs up the steps in the back to have a seat. It is really inspiring to see the joy and enthusiasm on peoples’ faces as he greets them up close.

Most of my days living here in Rome are not particularly glamorous. Learning to read Greek and Hebrew at the same time in the midst of a foreign culture is pretty much the most difficult thing I have ever attempted, so I don’t get much free time to wander around and see the city. But I try not to complain too much, because I know that mornings like this are a very rare blessing that most people will never see. I really hope you get to experience it for yourself some day. I also hope that more young people will respond to the call issued by God and affirmed by the Pope: to give of themselves in loving service. If you happen to be called to the priesthood for the Diocese of Cleveland, then I look forward to teaching you about the Bible when I get home in about four years. But for now, I’ve gotta get back to my Hebrew flashcards :)
PD Holy Week Report: Eating some humble pie today. Three, count them THREE nice articles about the faith today.

1 comment:

Habemus Papam said...

Good to hear from you FM! As I was reading, I felt as though I was there with you. Your experience was amazing and I think everyone would have loved to have been in your shoes (although I am quite pleased you're the one doing the Hebrew and Greek and not I). Thank you for sharing with us. After reading something like this, it makes me start to re-think my vocation in life and what God is really calling me to be and do. To experience Christ in the fashion that you did, makes me very thankful for all that you and all of the other priests in Cleveland do for us. Thank you for your if only I could figure out what mine is! :) pax.