En route to central Rome from Termini station, our Taxi driver (who had scoffed at us for trying to find taxis for 14 girls plus luggage: “do you know what today is?!”) called over his shoulder as we raced through the Borghese Gardens “He was-a-the best Pope I ever seen. Best-a-Pope ever.” And certainly, the humble opinion of our taxi driver seemed to be shared by the hundreds of thousands of faithful who jostled, squeezed and wedged their way into the streets surrounding St Peter’s Square in Vatican City for the Beatification of John Paul II on May 1st.
How does one begin?! The buzzing crowds, the Polish flags, the street sellers, the euphoric singing and police sirens… and that was only at 3:30am on Sunday morning.
But the events surrounding the Beatification ceremony began the evening before, and I was lucky enough, blessed indeed, to find myself, on the evening of April 30th 2011, walking down the cobbled streets of Rome toward the Circus Maximus for the candle-light prayer vigil, a street-bought pizza folded and wrapped in newsprint in one hand, a camera in the other. Priests and other Religious passed by our group as frequently, it seemed, as laymen; as frequent as the Polish flags dancing above the heads of the crowd.
People collected long white candles and food packs from under the big screens placed at intervals down the ancient chariot track, which flicked through scenes from JPII’s life while waiting for the sun to go down. Songs floated across the evening air; sleeping bags were pulled out; rosary beads dangled from hands and pockets; and the cloudy sky, threatening rain and sending down the odd few drops now and again, miraculously held off, no doubt in response to many fervent prayers sent up by the scores of people who had clearly travelled from all over the world to be there.
The vigil began with a number of moving speeches by people who had lived and worked closely with John Paul II during the course of his life. Among those who spoke were JPII’s lifelong friend Cardinal Archbishop Staniswaf Dziwisz, and Sister Marie Simon Pierre, the French Nun whose miraculous overnight cure from Parkinson’s Disease was the miracle attributed to John Paul II for the cause of his Beatification.
Following the speeches, the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary were prayed – but to our great delight it was not led merely by people from the stage at the end of the Circus Maximus, but each decade was led in turn by people from Marian Shrines in Krakow, Tanzania, Lebanon, Guadalupe and Fatima, broadcast live to the big screens there in the Circus Maximus; a Rosary said and shared across the world. We ended with the Salve Regina, and the crowd were asked to light their tiny light discs and raise their candles in memory of the precise time Blessed John Paul II had left this life.
The crowd dissipated shortly afterwards, some heading through the dark streets of Rome towards St Peter’s, stopping at the 8 open Churches along the way for Adoration and prayer. Others, like us, remained to pray in front of the large icon of Our Lady and the Child Jesus at the back of the stage. People had stuck their dwindling candles into the marble pebbles of the grounds of the Circus Maximus in little patches here and there, so when I and two others walked slowly through the silent and largely deserted Circus at 2am, our path was lit by patches of candlelight here and there, each a little tribute in its own way to the Pope who had clearly ignited something in the lives of so many.
At 3:30am, my group made our way to St Peter’s square. Or, rather, we attempted to, for at 4am the crowds were cramming into every street that afforded even the barest glimpse of the great dome. We found a patch of grass at the very end of the street leading to St Peter’s square, and even that was hard-fought for.
In a vain and rather ludicrously optimistic attempt to reach the square, I set out into the crowd, but managed to progress 2 blocks (100 metres or so) up the via della Conciliazione towards St Peter’s before deciding to get out of the crushing closeness of the crowd and returned to our grassy spot outside the Castel St Angelo; a 300 metre circuit that took around 2 ½ hours to complete. And it wasn’t even 8am.
The crowds continued to pour in in a steady stream from 4am when we arrived until the moment the ceremony began at 10am. A group of pilgrims took up their drums and guitars and turned the wailing police sirens into a rhythmic song; there were flags of every nation (but mostly Poland) fluttering above the heads of the crowd; a single male voice sang a calming solitary tune above the fray; strong men hoisted old ladies over barriers to escape the crowded street; people in sleeping bags still lined the less-crowded streets and footpaths, and a lady lay faint in the midst of the crowd, paramedics forcing their way through the crowd to reach her… but it was a pleasant crowd who smiled despite the frustration and the lack of sleep, pleased perhaps just to be lucky enough to count oneself among those able to tread the streets of Rome within view of the great dome of St Peter’s on that joyful day; each person happy that the love he or she felt for John Paul II was shared in abundance by so many others.
The ceremony began at 10am after a performance by a mass choir, which no doubt soothed the increasingly hot and bothered crowds, for what had threatened to be a rainy day turned out to be a stunner. We could see very, very little, but the sound was amazingly good; people tuned in to translations of the ceremony broadcast over the radiowaves to hear first Cardinal Agostino Vallini present the cause for beatification to Pope Benedict, then to hear the familiar voice of the Holy Father announce that from henceforth, John Paul II would be called ‘Blessed’. Well, the crowds just went wild, and the whole street around us seemed a blaze of red and white Polish flags. Following this, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated mass. Then for me, it was time to battle the outskirts of the crowd and make a hasty dash for the airport, looking forward to the long flight home to reflect on an incredible couple of days, and to enjoy a much-needed sleep.
– By Nicole van Heerden 11.5.2011