Last Wednesday evening I went to the Vatican to pay homage to the Holy Father. I braved the chilly night and waited in line for 13 hours. Here is my story:
WEDNESDAY, 06 April 2005
19:45 – After taking supper and washing the dishes I go to my room to prepare myself for what I’m sure will be a very long night. I wanted to be as light as possible, so I limit the contents of my backpack to a few essentials: a scarf, an extra shirt, bottled water, a book, paper and pen, and of course my digital camera.
20:02 - I go to the bus stop along Via Nomentana. After a short while, bus number 36 arrives.
20:17 – I get down at Piazza Reppublica and go straight to the metro station. I was expecting hordes of passengers, so I am surprised to see only a handful.
20:56 – I arrive at the Ottaviano San Pietro station. As soon as I get out of the station into the road leading to St. Peter’s Basilica I understand why the metro was almost completely empty – everyone is already in the Vatican!
There are moments in life when all you can do is go with the flow. Tonight is one of them. I follow the crowd and soon I find myself in a sea of pilgrims. If there is one thing that binds us as one tide of humanity, it is our love for the man we call Holy Father. I feel an immersive sense of being plugged in to that oceanic feeling of cosmic singularity – a complete unity which blurs the boundaries of culture, race, language, social status, and creed.
21:45 – Based on the flags carried by the pilgrims, you’ll get the impression that the whole Polish race is in the Eternal City tonight. Based on languages, I can make out that there are Italian, French, Spanish, and English-speaking people among the crowd. I also see some kababayans here and there.
News reports I read earlier said that so far two million pilgrims had paid homage to Pope John Paull II since Monday afternoon. A huge chunk of the pilgrims are Europeans. For those who think that religion is dead in Europe will find it strange and surprising to see so many Europeans praying for the pontiff, queuing up to see him for the last time, and going back to their churches. Some academics call Europe “post-Catholic” or that nobody in the continent practices the Catholic faith anymore. That instead of attending Eucharistic celebrations they go to football matches. That instead of praying in Cathedrals they go to sports stadiums. But tonight I see that neither faith nor Catholicism is dead in Europe.
21:56 - Estimated average speed: 20 steps per hour
Estimated duration of wait: 12 to 18 hours
Estimated time of arrival: 10:00 the following morning.
Estimated distance: two kilometers
Cause of delay: hundreds of thousands desire to see the pope but only about a hundred people at a time are allowed to enter the basilica.
22:00 We are in Via del Mascherino and we are completely immobile now. Everyone in my immediate vicinity is talking in tongues. So this is how it feels to be in the Tower of Babel, huh? I don’t know a single word in any Eastern European languages, so I made friends through smile, hellos and nods.
22:21 – We’ve just taken 23 steps in less than a minute. Whew! For once it feels like we moved at supersonic speed.
22:24 – The woman behind me begins to smoke. Early this year, smoking was banned in all enclosed public spaces (like bars and restaurants) in Italy. In my opinion, smoking should be banned in all public areas, including open spaces.
22:30 - A helicopter circles above us. I heard from the news that the Roman local government drafted in extra police, a surveillance plane and anti-aircraft missiles to protect the masses from any terrorist attack. On Friday morning all flights in Italy will be canceled for security reasons. 200 heads of states (including our own Gloria Arroyo) are expected to attend the Pope’s funeral rites.
22:36 – 40 steps.
22:38 - A group of Italian youth about a meter away from me begins to recite the rosary. I join in their prayers.
23:05 – I wonder how people at the tail end feel right now. Will they give up? Will they persevere? I can’t see much from where I stand. The 5’6” me is dwarfed by these gigantic Europeans. Although I cannot see the way ahead I reaffirm my commitment to be patient, to wait, and to go on without wavering.
23:14 – We reach a bottleneck at Porta Sta. Ana. The porta is only half the width of Via Mascherino. Our movement is now limited to inhaling and exhaling.
23:58 - Finally, we traverse beyond Porta Sta. Ana. We are now in Via Dei Corridori. We burst into a blaring round of applause. When you are immobile for a long time, a few steps become a cause for stupendous jubilation.
THURSDAY, 07 April 2005
00:08 – I meet two pinays, one was about 45 years old while the other was probably 50. They told me that they’ve been standing in line since 4:00 this afternoon (which makes me realize that I am relatively fast). I learn that they came straight from their work. I figure they must be exhausted by now, after working the whole day and standing in line for 8 hours, but I see no hint of frustration nor fatigue in their faces. Something tells me that the pope is looking at us now, blessing us, smiling at us.
00:32 – Two steps. That’s all. No more. No less.
00:38 – Three steps. Yawn.
00:45 – It’s a miracle. We are now moving without…
00:46 – We stop. My joy is short lived. Somwehere in the middle of the line, a cluster sings “Servo Per Amore”, a religious Italian hymn.
There is an emergency route on the sidewalk which is used by medics and the police. I can see 7 old people receiving medical attention there.
01:02 – We move about a hundred steps.
01.08 – We stop again. Two Italian men ask me what the heck I am writing about. I tell them that I am recording all the significant events of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. We exchange ideas why millions of people brave the chilly night and wait for what seems like forever to get a glimpse of the pope for less than a minute.
01:54 – We’re stuck. A series of portable toilets are strategically set up every few meters on the sidewalk. I queue up for one of them. Many people do. So yet another line was formed. We are so used to delays now that waiting for one’s turn to use the portalet is not an encumbrance anymore.
02:17 – By now the door to St. Peter’s Basilica must be closed. I read news reports last Monday that the basilica is closed for cleaning from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m.
02:34 – We are still stuck. Some close their eyes while standing still and some others chat unceasingly with their companions. It amazes me why such a motley throng has traveled from far away places and queue for hours and hours to have a quick glance at the mortal body of Pope John Paul II. During midday the sun can be utterly hot and it can be just as chilly in the night. There is the real risk of getting of sick or getting hurt. People doing small and big sacrifices. Why all these?
Each person, I’m sure, has his/her particular reason. I presume that many came here because of their faith. But obviously there are also those who are not here for religious reasons. In fact many of them are not the kind of people you see in Church on Sundays. They are here to pay respect and to give honor to one of the greatest personalities of our time.
03:00 – We move. My back begins to ache. I’ve been carrying my backpack for six hours now and the longer I carry it the heavier it feels. Yet looking around, it appears that my knapsack is lighter than others’. I see people carrying sleeping bags, tents, thermoses and other outdoor equipment.
03:14 – An English-speaking man yells that he found a bag. Nobody claims it. Next to me a young couple kisses passionately while a priest dressed in black cassock nearby looks away. It’s getting chilly now, so it’s just natural that humans will look for every physical warmth they can get.
03:54 – It’s absolutely impossible but somebody suggests it anyway. “Everyone, move back!”, the woman screamed at the top of her lungs. Naturally, nobody moves an inch. The idea is: if everyone moves back then everyone can sit down. Brilliant idea, I must admit. But it’s like moving Noah’s Ark on dry ground.
If only those in the back will move first.
To pass away the time, some play games with their cellphones, others joke with their friends, while some others continue kissing. Although I’m not expecting to fall asleep, I close my eyes.
05:35 – We are now in Via della Traspontina, so called because in order to reach the Vatican city from Rome you have to cross a bridge over the Tiber. The word Transpontina means “beyond the bridge”. One of the titles of Pope John Paul II was Supreme Pontiff. Derived from the Latin “pontifex”, the word pontiff literally means “bridge.” The Pope, being the Vicar of Christ, is the bridge between God and humanity.
05:52 - I meet two more pinays.
06:45 – We enter the Via Conciliazione, the road that leads directly to the door of St. Peter’s Basilica. We can see the Basilica bathed in the yellow rays of the rising sun. Some begin to sing again. Others clap their hands.
09:34 – We reach the Piazza San Pietro. There is a kind of excitement now among us pilgrims that I did not notice before. In the piazza, volunteers hand out bottled water while media practitioners are busy setting up their equipment, getting ready for tomorrow’s papal burial rites.
10:15 – We start our ascent to the Basilica.
10:42 – At last we enter St. Peter’s. In stark contrast to the shouting, chatting, singing, and cheering while we were still outside, everyone suddenly becomes silent inside the Basilica. No, not the silence of despair but a silence of prayer and respect. Pope John Paul II has travelled the world over to be with people and to share his faith with them. Now I come to him to show my sorrow, gratitude and my affectionate love for him.
When I finally see him lying in state near the altar I become certain of how serene and happy he was in the face of death. I take comfort in the fact that since Pope John Paul II is no longer among us, he now takes his place among the saints. That way he can continue to tend the flock he has left behind. Somehow I am sure that the Pope has already began doing what he loves the most – busily interceding for our needs, bridging the relationship between us and God.