Reflections on Pope Francis’ Mass of Inauguration: Inside and Atop St. Peter’s Square

So blessed to be here

I only got one hour of sleep heading into the day as I was very excited to attend the Mass of Inauguration for Pope Francis; after all that was the whole purpose of this extraordinary trip.  We had breakfast once again in our rooftop restaurant and were very encouraged by sun shining gloriously.  Much of our table discussion was centered on whether or not to bring a jacket and/or umbrella

We met at 8am in hotel lobby and took a group picture with the entire delegation.  It was quite an honour to be in the same picture as the Governor General and his wife, Members of Parliament, a Senator (government official not hockey player), and more.  What made it even more special was the fact they used my camera as the official photographer had already left for St. Peter’s Square.

We left the hotel at 8:30am in our motorcade – riding in the motorcade was quickly becoming one of my favourite aspects of the trip.  This particular trip was probably the craziest one because of the combo of how busy the streets are and how crazy our driver was.  Many times during the trip I would cover my eyes or brace myself in my seat – or sometimes both – as we literally would come within inches of running people over or hitting other vehicles.  Then, after about 15 minutes of battling traffic, the traffic parted like the Red Sea and we had a clear path to St. Peter’s Square.

We unloaded our bus at a back entrance and waited there for our tickets and instructions for a few minutes.  We saw many different cardinals and bishops arrive including Cardinal Turkson on Ghana and Cardinal O’Malley of America.  After receiving our tickets, we were quickly ushered towards the Square to take our seats.

We entered the Square from the “front” and words can’t really properly surmise the experience.  As we walked in, the altar was on our left; thus the “upper level” was buzzing with all of the dignitaries taking their seats.  We walked along the front of the audience in making our way to our seats and it was a surreal visual seeing hundreds of thousands of people there for the Mass.  And we got to sit in front of 99% of them. :p

We found seats on the right side about 75 meters from the altar and I quickly sent a text home to a few people to show-off…er…share the good news about our good seats.  In the midst of me sending the text, a certain vehicle entered the Square from the back: Pope Francis was making his way through the crowd.  Caught unprepared, I quickly retrieved my camera and started to snap away.  In hindsight, I wish that I had my longer lens attached but I didn’t want to risk missing the moment completely.  Thankfully, the pictures turned out well enough.

Pope Francis enters St. Peter's Square

Prior to the Mass, Pope Francis received both his pallium and fisherman’s ring.  Then, the Mass began and the liturgy guide became my best friend; without it I would have been rather lost.  While I understand the flow of the liturgy, the actual text of the songs and prayers would have been challenging for me.  The Mass was primarily in Latin, while certain Mass parts and readings were done in other languages including English, Spanish, Greek, Russian, Arabic, French, Mandarin, and Swahili.

Pope Francis did his homily in Italian so I didn’t understand any of it.  I remained observant and attentive and did my best to applaud and nod when everyone else did.  The priest I was sitting next to gave me a quick one-minute recap after Pope Francis was done.  Later on, the homily was transcribed on many websites such as here.  I was really struck by how easily Pope Francis compared the role of St. Joseph as protector of Mary and Jesus and the Church to our role as Catholics to protect Christ is our lives so that we can protect others such as the poorest, the weakest, and the least important among us.  Wow…powerful stuff there.

The distribution of communion was pretty efficient given the hundreds of thousands of people in attendance.  In our own section, we had to be creative by moving chairs around to ensure a proper flow of traffic.  Thankfully, our section went relatively quickly and I was able to spend quality time in prayer.  I offered up my own intentions as well as the many intentions that I brought from family and friends.  I was equally proud and blessed to be at the historic event representing Catholics and Canadians.

Prior to the final blessing, Pope Francis spent some time in the front of a statue of Mary, undoubtedly asking Our Lady to intercede for him and for all those in attendance.  The Mass soon ended prior to 11:30am making it less than two hours.  Pope Francis stayed true to his intentions of keeping the Mass as simple yet reverent as possible.  In fact, I was very impressed by the overall reverence of the congregation.  Sure enough there were a few distractions such as people taking pictures or even chatting on their cell phones.  But overall there was a really spirit present.

There wasn’t really an “aha” moment of the Mass; something that will stand out for me life-changing.  Rather it was the entire experience that I will remember most.  Many times throughout the liturgy I would catch myself staring at Pope Francis, at the hundreds of cardinals and bishops, at the statues, or at the crowd, and simply be in awe.  “It is good to be here,” I would repeat to myself in thanksgiving.  After all, a week prior, I had no idea I was going to be here!

When Mass concluded I said farewell to my counterparts in the Canadian delegation. While they made their way to the bus, I stayed and soaked in the sights and sounds when I was politely interrupted by a priest who noticed my credentials.  Turns out that he is from the Archdiocese of Toronto and he is there to study for a few years.  After getting to know each other for a few minutes, I asked Father Michael if he understood Italian.  When he answered yes, I asked him if he could explain to me what Pope Francis said in his homily.

Just as he started with his answer, his cell phone rang.  It was a media outlet asking for Fr. Michael’s take on the Mass.  I stayed alongside him and paid particular attention (eaves-dropped) when he answered a question about the homily.  As he hung up, we laughed that he did indeed answer my question…just not to me directly.

I asked a couple of guards what time they anticipated St. Peter’s Basilica to open.  One of them said 3pm, another said 1pm.  Things were obviously up in the air, as Pope Francis was meeting dignitaries inside of the Basilica after the Mass.

Just prior to noon, I lined up at the entrance along with a dozen other people.  I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to get much in terms of personal space as the crowd grew rapidly over the next 90 minutes.  While it wasn’t the most comfortable experience, it actually helped me once as I actually fell asleep on my feet. When I took a step forward (think of when you fall asleep in class by having your arm slip off the desk…same feeling), I actually bumped into the person in front of me.  I sheepishly apologized and pretended that I myself was bumped by someone behind me. :p

The doors opened at 1:30pm and I quickly made my way through security.  With some stealth manoeuvring, I was second into the Basilica trailing only a Chinese couple (more on them later).  I immediately made my way to the famous cupola and examined the pricing options:

  • 7 Euro to take the elevator to the roof level (and walk 320 steps to the dome)
  • 5 Euro to walk both from the ground to the roof AND then from roof to dome (551 steps)

I ended up choosing to walk the entire thing.  It started off fine as the steps were quite wide and short.  A few minutes in the steps started to become more narrow and taller.  I made it to the roof with relative ease and psyched myself up for the more difficult second part.

The staircase seemed to narrow with every step making it much more challenging.  I lamented not locking up my camera and man-purse downstairs as they added a few pounds of extra weight to carry.  The fact that I was in my suit and nicest pair of shoes didn’t help.  As I approached the end, my cell phone rang.  I didn’t answer for fear of falling all the way down as I fumbled with my things to answer it.  Finally, I made it to the top – very relieved and quite sweaty.

The narrow, winding stairwells

The only other people up there were the Chinese couple.  “You guys are really fast” I told them as I took out my camera.  The sight was absolutely magnificent as you could see miles upon miles of Rome.  The most amazing part was looking down at St. Peter’s Square and thinking that I was witnessing history there just a few hours prior.   My cell phone rang again and this time I answered it.  It was a Catholic newspaper asking for my thoughts on attending the Mass.  At that moment I was very grateful that I had listened in on Father Michael’s interview earlier as it gave me ideas for my answers.  I just hope that the reporter was able to decipher my answers between my heavy breathing.

Happy to have made it to the top
St. Peter's Square from up above

After about half an hour of soaking in the view, I made my way back down which was obviously a lot easier than going up.  Although, there were a couple of times I thought I was going to crash into a side wall with my forward momentum.

I spent another 3 hours in the Basilica alternating between praying, taking pictures, and marvelling at the relics, the tombs, and the artwork.  In particular, I was touched seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta, the chapel containing the remains of Blessed John Paul II, and the tombs in the Vatican grotto beneath the Basilica.

Michelangelo's "Pieta"
The tomb of Blessed John Paul II

I knew that I had made the right decision to stay behind after the Mass.  My only regret was not being able to see the Sistine Chapel as it was closed for the day.  I just wished I had known that before I started the 15 minute walk to get there.

By the time I got back to the hotel it was 5:30pm and proceeded to fire up yet another bubble bath.  I was quite tired physically but energized emotionally and spiritually – so much so that I didn’t even notice that I hadn’t eaten since 7am.

After posting a few of my pictures from the Mass, I connected with my reality TV partner Josh for dinner at around 7:30pm and was back to the hotel by 9:30pm.  I packed, started this blog, and prepared to watch yet another 3am Canucks game online.

Most of all, I spent time in prayer, thanking God for his abundant generosity and for transforming me through this experience.  I look forward to returning home a better person because of it

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