Religious Awakening: Attending a Papal Mass

Italy, Spiritual Travel — By on December 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm

By Briana Palma
LG Contributor

Most people associate the fearless traveler with backpacks, bungees and outdoor adventure. Still, the courage we take with us when visiting new places applies to all situations and, I think, especially those that require us to open our minds to the diversity the world presents.

Nearly everyday for the past four months I’ve passed through Vatican City. From my apartment I can even spot the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, particularly stunning at night with the glow of its golden lights. And while I appreciate the structure for its grandiosity and architectural beauty, I rarely reflect on its religious significance as a place of pilgrimage for the world’s one billion Roman Catholics (for the record I’m technically one of them, but I strongly disagree with the Church’s stance on many issues). Walking through the piazza I see just another historic site, an attraction for the tourists who usually frustrate me with their inability to navigate a moped-filled street.

Still, when Hendrik, a friend from my Italian class, told me he had an extra ticket for the Pope’s weekly audience, I decided to tap into that supply of fearlessness and get out of my ideological comfort zone while remaining in my Roman neighborhood.

The morning of the audience I walked my normal route to school, following the tall brick wall that delimits the world’s smallest country. I crossed paths with visitors already lined-up down the street and around the corner to enter the Vatican Museums, home to Michelangelo’s splendid Sistine Chapel. This time, though, I didn’t continue across the bridge or into the historic center.

Hendrik and I met on Via della Conciliazione, the Mussolini-era street that connects the Basilica with Castel Sant’Angelo, an ancient mausoleum that served as a pope’s residence and refuge in the 14th century. The wide roadway normally buzzes with tour buses and travelers, but on that chilly autumn morning the area remained tranquil with few people around. As we made our way over to the south side of Vatican City, though, I spotted a mass of people, all congregated in front of security stalls and waiting to enter the auditorium where audiences are held.

The functional space surprised me with its modernity, a sharp contrast from the traditional values of the Catholic Church, I thought. Even the enormous bronze of Jesus strays from the norm, depicting the prophet rising from the wreck of an atomic bomb. Without the two oval, stained-glass windows with shades of cobalt, sunflower and lilac, the auditorium could have served for a theatrical performance or rock show.

And in many ways, the event gave me flashbacks of a Backstreet Boys concert I attended years ago. Sure, the Pope’s audience included fewer teen girls and his “performance” lacked impressive dance choreography, but even before the morning’s star made his appearance, emotion filled the air. People excitedly waved their countries’ flags and prepared to catch the eye of their idol.

When Pope Benedict XVI finally ambled out and placed himself in a simple, tan chair, he looked like anyone’s grandfather sitting down to tell a story. Yet, just as the boy-bands of the 90s, he had a powerful dual effect: some erupted in emotional cheers, while others seemed too overwhelmed to make a sound. To my right, a woman wiped away quiet tears. In front of me, a pair that appeared to be mother and son stood wide-eyed, hands clasped in front of their chests.

After giving a sermon, the Pope handed things over to the archbishops, a sort of troupe of international backup singers. Speaking in their mother tongues, they recognized groups of pilgrims who, like teen girls battling for the attention of their celebrity crush, cheered, sang and chanted for the religious leader. He responded by reaching out his arm, apparently conferring his blessing upon them.

I watched on with a certain detachment until the English-speaking archbishop announced “pilgrims from the New York and New Jersey Police and Fire departments.” I turned to look at these fellow Americans and applauded with pride. Moments later I felt another tug on my heart-strings when an enormous group of Chilean youths stood and shouted that now-famous “Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!” chant that I had listened to just weeks before as I watched the inspirational rescue of the country’s 33 miners. Everyone in attendance seemed to recognize the message of hope and cheered both for and with the representatives of the South American country.

And in those moments I put aside my skepticism and found meaning in the event. So much diversity filled the room: followers and non-believers, easterners and westerners, newlyweds (in wedding garb) and eternal singles. Still, there was not a shred of hatred or a single protest, but rather a tangible sense of respect. When I looked around I simply saw people who, like me, have a set of beliefs that help them live their lives.

For information on attending a Papal Audience, visit

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