“In the design of Providence, there are no coincidences.”
—Pope St. John Paul II
After an amazing semester in Rome with Thomas More College’s study abroad program, some classmates and I took the opportunity of staying an extra week after the semester for the Canonization Mass of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. It was an incredible experience for all of us to attend the Church’s liturgy in recognition of Her Saints, particularly of two popes who were so influential to our lives in the Faith.
My fellow pilgrims and I grew up under Pope John Paul II, and attending his canonization was made all the more significant by our Poland Pilgrimage earlier in the semester, during which we visited his childhood house, kissed the font he was baptized in, prayed in the Chapel where he was ordained to the priesthood, visited the altar of his first Mass, and met and spoke with his longtime secretary, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, Archbishop of Kraków. This last pilgrimage to the canonization was the culmination of our semester of pilgrimages.
The evening before the canonization, many churches participated in a “White Night,” covering the city of Rome with prayer and Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament until morning. Some faithful prayed at these churches all night, and other pilgrim groups, such as ours, stopped in for prayers before camping outside for a good spot in the Canonization Mass.
Carrying a large American flag and singing songs in Polish, English, Italian, Latin and Spanish, our little pilgrim group first walked to Piazza Navona. The square was filled with Polish pilgrims, waving flags, singing, and praying. We joined them before continuing towards St. Peter’s. We were hailed and stopped by people of all nationalities on the street, who spoke, prayed, and sang with us. Liz Whitmore, a pilgrim from our group, commented, “One of my favorite moments was walking through the streets of Rome beforehand singing songs, waving the American flag, greeting other pilgrims and cheering for each other—it became so tangible to me how universal the Church is.”
At around 11 pm, our group of fourteen people tried to get in line before St. Peter’s square opened in the morning. There was nowhere for us to go—the entire Via della Conciliazione, the large road leading to St. Peter’s basilica, was packed with thousands of other pilgrims all the way to the Tiber and along surrounding streets. Our group backtracked through side streets to Castel Sant’Angelo. Praying Hail Marys and Memorares, we wove our way to the very end of Via della Conciliazione. The street was stuffed with people except for a small lane in the middle, which was blocked off for single emergency vehicles and workers. Suddenly, the crowd started moving forward up the Via. Grabbing each others’ hands, we ran as fast as we could to get onto the street. In the next few hours, crowded against thousands of others, we managed to be miraculously swept halfway up the Via. We moved only a few feet at a time every half hour or so, until midnight. It was beyond uncomfortable, but everyone kept up good spirits and took turns sitting to rest in the tiny space we had. Some troopers in our group never sat down, as did an elderly Polish lady near us. We offered her our spot multiple times throughout the night, but she would never accept it.
The night was chaotic, unpredictable, exhausting and draining, and the whole time, we had no way of knowing if we could get into St. Peter’s square in the morning. But despite this, we were so happy. We were next to Swiss and Polish pilgrims, who sang the whole evening, shared food, and taught us songs. We also made friends around us, who talked and laughed with us. One man, Dominic, from New York, stood on a ledge and gave us updates on the crowd ahead of us.
At 5:30am, St. Peter’s square was finally opened. The crowd moved and pushed until we finally entered the square at 7:30am. We got into one of the farthest sections, standing room only, but we were one of the last groups to be let in before the square was closed. TMC sophomore Ann Halnon said, “My favorite part was finally getting into the square when it had been so uncertain for the past 8 hours. It was like finding manna in the desert.” We considered it a complete miracle. We were so tired it hurt, but we were all filled with joy. People clapped and cheered as we saw Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI arrive. I almost cried when Pope Francis greeted him with a kiss of peace, as the giant tapestries of John Paul II and John XXIII on the front of St. Peter’s basilica smiled down on the whole square.
The canonization Mass began at 10am. The Latin Novus Ordo was celebrated by Pope Francis and cocelebrated by hundreds of cardinals and bishops—Benedict among them. My heart swelled when Francis canonized Popes Saints John Paul II and John XXIII. Liz Whitmore remembers, “After Pope Francis declared Popes John XXIII and John Paul II saints, the rain cleared off, there was a break in the clouds and the sun came out a bit! I knew our new saints wouldn’t let it rain on the million pilgrims who sacrificed much to be there for their canonization!” Another pilgrim and TMC Rome student, Paula Shute, mentioned “the joy that you could feel in the massive amount of people as soon as Papa Francesco named John Paul II and John XXIII saints.”
Throughout the whole morning, I couldn’t believe I was truly there, experiencing that moment, despite every reason I shouldn’t be. Our group was truly guided by heavenly hands. At every perilous moment, we
sang together the Marian song we had learned in Poland: “O Pani ufność nasza w modlitwy Twej obronie chroń nas Królowo pokoju!” I believe it
was only through the intercession of Our Lady, St. John Paul II, and St. John XXIII that we were given a place in St. Peter’s square.
After the Mass, Pope Francis rode around in the popemobile, and visited the pilgrims still packed along the Via della Consilazione who never got into the square. Then he returned to the square, passed right by us, and gave us the thumbs up.
` “Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II were not afraid to look upon the wounds of Jesus, to touch his torn hands and his pierced
side. They were not ashamed of the flesh of Christ, they were not scandalized by him, by his cross; they did not despise the flesh of their brother (cf. Is 58:7), because they saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles. These were two men of courage, filled with the parrhesia of the Holy Spirit, and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.”
—Pope Francis’ homily at Canonization Mass, Divine Mercy Sunday,
April 27th, 2014