Yesterday, the Catholic Church celebrated the sainthood of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
Was I in Piazza San Pietro? Absolutely not; I wouldn’t consider dragging my 15-month-old son into a crowd that size – and even without him, I wouldn’t have attempted it. In my opinion, there’s nothing “holy” about being squashed between 800,000 tired, hungry pilgrims. That scenario actually sounds more like a “holy hell,” if I’ve ever heard of one – that is, unless your idea of a religious experience is an exercise in masochism.
I also wasn’t as inclined to participate since, in my mind, it would be hard to top the experience I had in 2005 during Pope John Paul II’s last days. I was living right down the street from the Vatican and was there in the piazza through it all: the days leading to his passing, attending his funeral, seeing the billowing white smoke and running to witness the announcement of Ratzinger as his successor. That was an incredible time of intense beauty and emotion, as true pilgrims began to pour into the city in droves, inspired solely by a need to be close to a person in his last moments whom they held so dear. Everyone – even the most fervent of unbelievers – can identify with that feeling. There was no buildup to a big event, no flags or jumbotrons – just quiet song and prayer by candlelight. No sensationalism, just a simple outpouring of love. Those were sensations I’ll never forget.
Regardless, SL&N did have representatives in the field on Sunday who confirmed all suspicions: apparently people had to arrive at 4am just to be able to have a chance to get a standing position in the piazza, which means they stood for six hours waiting for the mass to begin (or froze their bums on the cold, bumpy San Pietrini). The press is reporting that throughout the duration of the event, emergency services had to intervene something like one-hundred twenty times. And as in any crowd of that size, at a certain point people started pushing, shoving, and arguing, which is a bit disheartening considering the setting. A friend told me she was actually forced to yell at a group of nuns who would not stop pushing from behind, causing her mother to lose her balance and fall. And, of course, when it was all over the entire neighborhood of Prati looked like a bomb had dropped.
Also as expected, the opportunists had quite a field day. Vendors capitalized on the occasion by selling €15 cans of Coke, and when it started to drizzle, €20 umbrellas. Not like you could blame them – after all, they weren’t the ones being declared saints, right?
Undoubtedly, the images of people singing and rejoicing in the streets were touching, and a comforting reminder that there are many people in this world still moved and inspired by the examples of humanity’s most devout leaders. The intentions of so many were certainly good – but as often happens in this world, good intentions are infiltrated and scarred by greed, negligence, anger, weakness… In other words, by human nature.
Everything would just be so much easier if we were all saints. Oh, the irony.