Pope Benedict XVI. Wikimedia Commons

The People, Peter, and Me

They set off at night on a journey for a gesture that lasts but minutes. 200,000 people were below that window, waiting for the Regina Coeli with Benedict XVI. Here’s what occurred on a historical day that filled St. Peter’s Square with silent communion.
Alessandra Stoppa

The train slows down, again. It hasn’t had time to gain speed since the last stop, and it’s grinding to a halt again in the middle of the countryside, who knows where. All we know is that we have been traveling for 10 hours, and we should have been home hours ago. The light in the compartment goes out. Someone beside me looks through the window at the dark countryside, and notices the starry sky. He tells the others who are half-asleep and hungry, looking for a way to pass the time. All of a sudden, they all think of the same thing: “Observe the stars more often... Look at the stars… then your soul will find rest.”

They repeat the words as they can, half remembering them, but the intensity of the moment during which you heard those words in St. Peter’s Square just a few hours before is complete. So, there in the middle of nowhere, there is a communion with heaven, and this train, unbearable as it is, at once becomes a friend for having made you look at the stars.

Change of Perspective.

We are on the way back from the Regina Coeli with the Pope. For months, that disarming request at the beginning of his pontificate had been coming back to mind: “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves”–the wolves, the sin of his children and the attacks of the world. This period has brought them out; they make a terrible appearance in newspapers, and fill mouths and thoughts. So, the Catholic movements and lay associations decided to gather around on May 16th, so that the Holy Father’s prayer could be theirs, too. Trains, buses, and cars were organized, and groups of families made arrangements to be there. Many commitments and Baptisms were postponed, and there were a lot of family members who asked why, thought it over, and decided to come–all of them faced with Fr. Julián Carrón’s invitation: “We want to ask God that the link with the historical point that is the Pope, which prevents us from getting lost and falling into total confusion will always triumph. We want to affirm what keeps us from giving in to confusion and to all the possible and imaginable interpretations that we would inevitably fall into, were it not for a historical point of reference that tells us the truth about Christ. We are not going to Rome to support him, but because we need him.” It might have been a slogan, or the changed perspective with which you booked your seat on the train.

There and back in 24 hours, 18 of these traveling, for 19 minutes with Benedict XVI. Two hundred thousand others made the same journey, every one of them in different ways and on different timetables. Some had been in Rome for two days, others left by bus at dawn from Basilicata, or from Germany, or from northeastern Italy; others arrived at 11:30 am by the Frecciarossa express from Milan. They were all there together beneath that window, and it is just as you would expect: a sea of heads below the cloudy sky; the banners, the balloons, and the raincoats of those who came better prepared. Perhaps you thought of it as a call to arms, but you find instead an army with tired muscles, who crane their necks and look around themselves to see what they had come looking for. They look for one another; it’s difficult to cross from one side of the square to the other, making way through the crowd of backpacks and people. The more courageous try; others content themselves with talking on their mobiles.

This army is made up of all kinds of people, from the white haired to those holding babies’ bottles. Claudio is well equipped and goes into a bar to heat up his children’s lunch, a mother breastfeeds her baby, and all this while they are waiting. A quick glace at the watch, one at the window. “The holy restlessness of Christ… For Him it is not indifferent that many people live in the desert. And there are many kinds of desert.” On the forecourt of St. Peter’s, they read out Benedict XVI’s homily given on April 24, 2005. In the strange light of this Roman morning, you see the banner that flutters around Bernini’s colonnade: “Don’t be afraid, Jesus has overcome evil.” You are there, and you are not afraid because people you hardly know begin to recite the Rosary with you, for the healing of a friend who suddenly becomes theirs, too. “Let us pray for one other,” comes a voice from the loudspeaker, “that the Lord will carry us and that we learn to carry one another.”

Sofia has known the students who are with her only for a year, and she is uneasy in this square. The more she thinks about it the more she wonders if she is really taking part in all this. Then the crowd begins to sing: Non nobis, Domine… “I began to sing it, too, and something inside me moved,” she says. “I was astounded and happy to call on the Holy Father like that.” More songs, readings, the Liturgy of the Word, and Cardinal Bagnasco, who reads Christ’s question to Peter: “Do you love Me?” All this, while waiting for the Pope. Finally, he arrives, the window opens, and we see him. There is applause and a cheer goes up. Then silence. Everything is different than it was a moment ago; it’s a different square now.

“Not a thought, not a religious feeling,” Fr. Giussani wrote, “but an event, something that was not there, but at a certain moment is there.” He is just a tiny dot on the Vatican façade, but he’s already talking to you, explaining the solemnity of the Ascension: “The Lord draws the gaze of the Apostles–our gaze–toward Heaven to show how to travel the road of good during earthly life.” Heaven on earth. Looking at that white dot opening his arms, you know that it’s true, an improvised evidence; and this is what stuns 200,000 of us and holds us in silence–God’s method. “Do you realize? Everything rests on that tiny dot, there, on nothing,” a friend comments. Meanwhile, the Pope insists on Heaven: “When you have a burden in your soul, look at the stars.” You don’t know it at the time, but these are the words of Pavel Florenskij. You don’t know it, but it is a letter from a Gulag. You do know that it is telling you not to look at yourself, but to raise up your eyes, as everyone is doing, to focus on him, who is reviving this army from its sluggish habits. He does it too because he is moved; he says thank you and repeats it: “Thank you! Again, thank you to all.” He greets us from the window and stays there, longer than usual. The “protocol” is over, but he doesn’t leave.

“Life is Fleeting”
A friend far away, in a hospital, listens to his words live on her cell. “The trials that the Lord gives us urge us to greater radicality.” And he says thank you again. In just a few minutes, Benedict XVI reminds his people and gives them directions for the journey, pointing out the “true enemy to be feared and fought”–sin. “We live in the world, the Lord says, but we are not of the world [cf. Jn 17: 10, 14], and we must beware of its seduction. But we must fear sin, and for this we must be strongly rooted in God.” He encourages each one: “Let us follow this way together with confidence. He greets the people in their various languages, and then says, “With thanks and joy, let us go forward in the Lord, by His grace!” He disappears from view and it’s all over.

“Life flies away like a dream, and often you can do nothing before the instant of its fullness escapes you.” Florenskij wrote his spiritual testament which speaks of heaven, as a prisoner on the Solovki Archipelago, a few months before his death, to say what it means to live. “To fill every instant with substantial content that time may not consume but make true, against all hope. Those who believe are never alone–neither in death nor in life. The Church is alive and we are seeing it: the Church is alive–she is alive because Christ is alive, because He is truly risen… The purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin.” He proclaimed these words five years ago, and today he fills the square with his gratitude. This comes before all the contents. His visible emotion is the main content, his look upon the crowd.

Kissed by Grace
In the shade of the colonnade is Alessandro, a child in a sickly body. His mother brought him here to the square in his buggy and arranged his blanket around him. She set him there under the eyes of the Pope, remembering the day she had taken him to the General Audience. “I had my victory,” she said, “I managed to get the Holy Father to kiss him.” Kissed by grace. “This is something surprising,” Péguy has God say. “That these poor children see how things go and think they will go better tomorrow; they see how things go today and think that it will go better tomorrow morning. I myself am surprised by it. How great must my grace be, and the power of my grace, that this tiny hope, that quivers at the breath of sin, that trembles at every wind, and is anxious at the slightest breath, should be so unchanging, so faithful, so erect, so pure; and invincible and immortal, and impossible to put out. A quivering flame that has passed through the deepest of nights.” It would have been a surprise to him, too, St. Peter’s successor, as he looked down on us from above, so tiny in the perspective of the square and in God’s fidelity.

Through the darkness of History and the history of everyone in this square. “I have had justice.” These are the words of Chiara, in an embrace before leaving St. Peter’s Square, as it slowly empties, in the aftermath of the event. It is already half empty; here and there people are taking group photos. It is an eternal square; no matter where you are standing, it puts you at the center. The Church. “Here is the place in the world where everything is made new…Something that anywhere else is constriction, here is nothing but an impetus and an abandonment… Something that anywhere else is a behavioral norm, here is comfort and joy… Something that anywhere else is disorder, here is nothing but a good adventure.” Shouldering backpacks, this river of people loses itself outside the colonnade.

Vittorio and Caravaggio
There’s just time for a sandwich at the edge of the road, because the train is due to leave soon. Rather than a quick tour of Rome or a visit to St. Peter’s, Vittorio takes the opportunity to go with a friend to the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi to see Caravaggio’s painting, The Call of St. Matthew. For the first time, he understands the comment explaining that between the observer and Christ is Peter. “St. Peter, the echo of Christ… In fact, Peter repeats the same gesture of pointing his finger,” Vittorio tells his friend. “And we, too, if we want to see Jesus fully, have to pass through Peter.” He is the one who guarantees our faith. The tombs of the Popes beneath the Vatican Basilica tell us this, too. Maria goes to visit these before leaving Rome and finds her heart trembling. The mystery of God reached her in this way, through that succession of men and saints who, one after another, have led the Church. “If you remove one, then it would never have reached me,” she thinks. But it has reached her, once more today, with that gentle responsibility that we have felt laid upon us. “Let’s go ahead in the Lord, by His grace.” The long day, May 16th, is over, but the trip home has something of a new journey, as Noemi wrote to a friend: “I came to Rome and didn’t conclude anything, I began everything.”