These past days were truly blessed days to be a “temporary” citizen of Rome. Two popes were canonized at a Mass celebrated by two popes–what has been termed in much of the Catholic world as “the Mass of four popes”.
Here is a little bit of a chronicle of the fateful day, which actually started the night before, as the center of Rome became a pilgrimage spot and its streets were filled with excitement for the Church’s two new saints: John XXIII and John Paul II.
Trinità dei Monti:
The evening began at the top of the Spanish Steps, at the church called Trinità dei Monti, which is actually a monastery of the Monastic Community of Jerusalem. The church is my spot to go for Vespers, the Evening Prayer of the Church, because of the monks and nuns who sing the psalms there in four-part harmony. I first came across this community at their home church of Saint-Gervais in Paris.
The church was packed with French-speaking pilgrims and those who just happened to wander into the church at the top of the famous steps. The community sang Vespers in French, and the congregation joined in their parts, amazingly finding their spot in the harmony. As I looked around, what struck me was the youth of those who were there to pray: young single people, young couples with children, and the monks and nuns who are mostly young French men and women.
I have always been struck by the beauty of French spirituality, its simplicity and its profundity, with such saints as Therese of Lisieux, Joan of Arc, and John Vianney. The French are known today as a pretty secular bunch, but the beauty of faith is that it gives those who “tap into” it access to the incredible depth of a culture formed by Christ, the “eldest daughter of the Church”, as France is known.
Here is a clip of their singing from their monastery in Quebec:
After a brief stop at Sant’Andrea della Valle, where my friends from Communion and Liberation had been asked by the Diocese of Rome to offer hospitality to other French pilgrims, I headed over to the Gesù to meet up with some priests from my house who follow the Neocatechumenal Way. The folks from “the Way” were all gathering at this Jesuit church, where St Ignatius and St Francis Xavier are buried, to keep an all night vigil before the canonization Mass.
The Neocatechumenal Way, as its name suggests, offers the spiritual richness of the catechumenal process (the process for unbaptized people to become Catholic, aka RCIA) to Catholics who may have drifted away from the Church or never tapped into the grace of the Sacraments of Initiation. They do this by forming small communities that share life together in an intense formation that often goes on for years. The “Neo-cats” began in Spain and have spread all over the world. They are well known for the many families that leave their homes to become missionaries precisely as families, and for the seminaries that have opened on every continent. I became friends with the Way while I was in Denver, where they have a seminary.
What struck me about this gathering was the great energy and enthusiasm that filled this huge baroque, Jesuit church. The contemplative experience of the Monastic Community of Jerusalem gave way to a rather raucous and joyous celebration, as many hundreds of young people–mostly Spanish and Italian–“settled in” for their vigil. The prayer vigil consisted of Vespers, a rosary, adoration, and Confession, accompanied by the powerful, energetic music for which the Way is known. Here is a link to one of their most famous songs, “Resucitò”:
At this point, I did something that many of the pilgrims did not get to do on Saturday night before the canonizations: I went home and went to sleep. The next morning, I set out at 6:30am (now, others spent the whole night at the gates of St Peter’s Square and others got up as early as 2:30am to get there in time–and they now want to kill me!). By the time I was heading to St. Peter’s to distribute communion–with my special ticket which is why I could leave so late–there were already many others heading from the Square to other parts of the city where they were showing the canonizations on screens.
Here are two photos from the Roman Forum, which is a long street that was completely covered with people watching on five jumbo-trons (called maxischermi in Italian):
Now, back to Saint Peter’s Square: the priests who were distributing communion gathered in the Paul VI Audience Hall and then moved from there into the Square already filled with people. As we walked out, you could feel the energy and excitement of the people. I knew we were going to be close to the altar, but I did not know how close. I was just excited to get into the Square and see how many people were there, and of course, the flags! More than half, for sure, were Polish flags with the names of cities and dioceses from which so many of the pilgrims had come. Here is a glimpse of the Square from where I was sitting:
And here is the glimpse the other direction (yes we were that close to the Basilica of St Peter!):
What can I say about the canonization itself? It was an incredible moment to hear Cardinal Amato (in charge of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints) ask Pope Francis on behalf of the whole Church to declare these men saints. Before this, we had chanted together the Litany of Saints, which really brought the reality of the canonization home to me: we were asking that Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II be numbered among these men and women (Peter, Paul, Augustine, Catherine of Siena, Francis, Dominic, Teresa), the “Hall of Fame” of Christianity!
Then came the moment for which I was vested and seated where I was: the consecration and the distribution of the Most Holy Eucharist. What struck me the most about this moment was the peacefulness and reverence of the crowd, who at moments were so silent that you did not know that there were 500,000 people standing behind you. The people came forward to receive communion so devoutly, which showed me the reason why they were in St Peter’s Square that day: they had encountered Christ through the witness of St John XXIII and St John Paul II.
This may seem a little thing, but I have distributed Holy Communion many times (thank God!) at St Peter’s, and often I witness the lack of reverence and attention with which the “normal” tourists receive Communion. I do not mean that as a harsh judgment on those people, but only to point out the difference that I experienced this time around. For me, this reverence and devotion was a huge testimony to the holiness of our two newest saints: they helped people to love Christ, really to see Christ and encounter Him where He is to be found.
The prayer that has filled my heart in the days since the canonization has been the “Glory Be”; the glory of God is that for which the saints live and that which they show to the Church and to the world. The Lord is truly glorious in His Saints, who have born such beautiful (and diverse) fruit because they remained in Christ, as branches on the true Vine.
Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, pray for us that we too may remain always in Christ. “In this is my Father glorified, that you bring forth much fruit and that you be my disciples.” (John 15:8)