My First Time at St. Peter’s Square and the Best Receiving Line Ever

I woke up after getting just three hours sleep – my body (and likely my mind) is having trouble adjusting to being in four time zones in three days.  Breakfast was available to us from 7am to 11am.  Generally when given a four-hour period, I will usually opt for a later time.  However, given this was my first time ever in Rome, I managed to get up by 8am and make it to breakfast by 8:30am.  It was pretty cool: I sat between a Senator and the Director for the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute.  I summoned my best table manners as we all enjoyed the breakfast buffet on the top floor of our hotel.  The discussion was quite good, and I was able to share about my family as well as ask a few thoughtful questions.

After breakfast I made my way to the office that was set up to assist the Canadian delegation.  I pulled out my hastily-written notes of recommended stores provided to me by Msgr. Smith and I punched all of the names into Google maps.   A few printouts later and I was off to the metro station to experience my first train-ride in Rome.

I took extreme caution in choosing the correct metro line; being directionally-challenged already (more on that later), the last thing I wanted was to wind up going the opposite direction than required.  Six stops later I got off at the correct station and made my way in the pouring rain to St. Peter’s Square.

I navigated my way through the busy streets of Rome and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest.  As I approached the columns tears started to form in my eyes: I couldn’t believe I was finally here for the first time in my 38 years.  I entered the Square and cried out “Thank you, Lord…You are worthy to be praised.”  I ensured that I took the time to savour – and saviour – the moment.  A moment I will remember for the rest of my life.

I scanned the entire area and noticed the massive line-up to enter St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.  Given the relatively short amount of free time I had, I made the decision not to line up despite how much I wanted to.  I spent much of my time walking throughout the grounds and picturing where I had seen all of the Square’s features on TV.

St. Peter's Square

I had people take pictures of me in my Canucks jersey (I was wearing it…not them…haha) and this led to some very interesting – and often entertaining – discussions.  My favourites were the ones where I had to explain that the Canucks’ logo is a whale jumping out of the ice shaped like a “C”.  I would pray that the person wouldn’t ask me why it’s a whale.  It was already hard enough to communicate to people who didn’t speak English – and some would say that my English isn’t great either. :p

As the rain continued to pour down, I was also able to shoot a quick Clay’s Canucks Commentary (video blog).  Later in the day, I tweeted a couple of my pictures (the ones in this post) to the Vancouver Canucks and they re-tweeted them out to their 360,000 followers. Now that’ s a creative way to evangelize!

Repping the Luongo jersey

I left St. Peter’s Square excited at the prospect of returning the next morning, albeit with hundreds of thousands of other people.  Armed with my directions from Google, I found Msgr. Smith’s favourite store and I proceeded to buy some prayer cards, rosaries, keychains, and medals.

I made it back to our hotel in time for an afternoon briefing in which we learned about the plans for the rest of our stay in Rome.  After the briefing, we agreed to meet in the lobby in 30 minutes to make our way to Mass at the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore (Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major).  At the thirty minute mark, everyone had gathered in the lobby except for my new friend and Survivor alliance partner Josh.  I told the group to go ahead first and that Josh and I would be just a few minutes behind them.  What followed was among the craziest 45 minutes of my life.

Josh came down just a couple of minutes later and we made our way across the street to what we thought was the correct church.  Upon entering the church at 3:05pm (Mass was scheduled for 3:15pm) we started looking for the “Crucifixion Chapel” – a side chapel where priests from our delegation were going to celebrate Mass for us.  We started to get puzzled and worried when we couldn’t find the chapel and no one in the Basilica knew what we were talking about.

We went outside and ran around the building looking for a side or back entrance.  As we ran, we asked people if they knew where the Crucifixion Chapel was but no one seemed to have a clue.   When we ended up in a garden behind a museum, we knew we weren’t getting anywhere.  We were about to leave when we noticed that the gate we had just entered through was now closed!  In a scene reminiscent of a horror movie, we were trapped inside (cue scary music here).

Thankfully we were able to find an employee to open the gate for us but it was now 3:15pm.  We decided that we would still try to find the group even just to be with them in prayer and community.  We sprinted back to the entrance of the Basilica and we agreed that we had now moved on from Survivor to The Amazing Race (stay tuned tomorrow to see what reality TV show we are).  We entered the Basilica now huffing and puffing and still couldn’t find the group.  Then it dawned on us:

We were at the wrong church.

We quickly left the church – now it was 3:20pm and we were getting more anxious.  “That’s what you get for doing a good deed, Clay” Josh said as we consulted our map.  It turns out that we were at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs (and not the Basilica of Saint Mary Major) and we were likely a good 10 minutes away from the proper church.  As we sprinted towards the proper destination, I said to Josh that perhaps the Mass hadn’t started yet for whatever reason.  Josh agreed and said that our difficulty in finding the church was actually a good way to prepare ourselves for Mass…if we ever got there.

Mass in a side chapel at the Basilica of Mary Major

Finally, at 3:40pm we entered the doors of St. Mary Major and within two minutes we found the rest of the group (who had actually been moved from the Crucifixion Chapel they originally had booked).  Sure enough, they hadn’t started Mass yet but not because they were waiting for us.  Rather, they were waiting for one of the Canadian archbishops to join us.  Josh and I grinned as we quickly took our pews – very sweaty yet very relieved that weren’t late after all.

After Mass we met up with our mutual friend Auravelia and together we walked back to the hotel to get ready for our evening function: the official reception for Canadian delegates at the Canadian Pontifical College (CPC). This was our first formal event of the trip and it was great to see everyone dressed up – especially the PMs and other government officials.

Josh and Auravelia

Upon arriving to the CPC we were greeted with the most awesome receiving line I’ve ever been received in.  As I went down the line I was greeted by Cardinal Collins of Toronto, Cardinal Ouellet of Quebec, Cardinal Turcotte of Montreal, Archbishop Lepine of Montreal, Archbishop Lacroix of Quebec, and Archbishop Smith of Edmonton.  I was able to make small talk more easily with the ones I knew (Collins, Ouellet and Smith).  Emphasis on “small” and not “talk” as there were many people behind me in line.

with Cardinal Ouellet

Throughout the evening I was able to catch up with old friends, make new ones, arrange media interviews, eat some food, and listen to speeches from the Governor General and others.  In particular, I cherished the time speaking with Neil MacCarthy, Fr. Tom Rosica, and Fr. Matthew To who is currently studying in Rome.  In fact, Fr. Matthew and I were able to spend some quality time together as he took me on a quick tour of his living quarters (complete with mosquito net) and I brought him up to speed with developments in my office and in the Archdiocese of Vancouver as a whole.

with Father Matthew

We left the reception and a few of us went out for a late dinner.  City police were busy securing the streets for the Mass making it a tad more difficult to get to where we wanted.  We ended up at an Italian restaurant (surprise surprise) and two hours flew by with our conversation touching on everything from the conclave to Catholics Come Home to inappropriate tweeting.  As we walked back to the hotel we noticed that even more streets had been blocked off and there was a growing police presence.

I took a quick nap before waking to write this blog and watch the Canucks game online.  As I post this, it’s approaching 5am meaning we’ll be leaving for St. Peter’s Square in just over a couple of hours.

I can’t wait to witness history and be a part of Pope Francis’ Mass of Inauguration.

  • Best line: the most awesome receiving line I’ve ever been received in. Way to go, Clay!

  • Of COURSE Msgr. Smith had a list for you!! If you meet His Holiness, don’t be surprised if he says: “YOU know Msgr. Smith??”