I can’t believe my trip is more than half over now! Since today is Sunday, my day was all about popes and churches.
Before this April, I had never seen a pope in person despite three attempts to do so.
Attempt #1 was when I was about 4 or 5 and John Paul II came to Chicago. I was just old enough to realize this was a really big deal. Along with thousands and thousands of other people (many of them part of Chicago’s huge Polish population eager to greet the first pope from their country), my family and I waited along Milwaukee Avenue for the pope to arrive. We waited and waited and waited. I’m sure I must have asked my parents multiple times, “Is the Pope here yet?” as if we were on vacation and I was asking the typical “Are we there yet?”
Finally, the crowd gave a loud cheer. My father grabbed me and hoisted me up so I could see above the heads of the many Polish people in front of us. However, the Pope’s car sped by very fast. (We learned later that there had been a security threat a ways down the road before us, and the driver had decided it was better to go faster.) So there I was as my father attempted to hoist me up, but all I saw were the backs of people’s heads and their waving arms.
“Do you see him?” my mom asked.
“Where? Where?” I asked.
“There!” She pointed through the sea of waving arms, but I didn’t know just where to focus my attention, and the moment was over almost as soon as it began.
I had missed the pope. All that waiting, and he was gone like that.
I cried. I mean, really cried. I was terribly sad the rest of the day.
Even at night, as my parents put me to bed, I was still crying over missing the pope. So as my mom tucked me in that night, she took out a prayer card of John Paul II and placed it next to my pillow.
“Here, Amy,” she said. “The Pope’s all yours tonight.”
Attempt #2 was when I was teaching in a Catholic school. I’ll make a long story short. The principal took the seventh and eighth graders to see the pope in St. Louis. He meant to take the seventh and eighth grade religion teachers. I was the seventh grade religion teacher. A guy taught eighth grade religion. The principal forgot, somehow, that I taught seventh grade religion. He didn’t book a room for me. I stayed at school and had no one to teach for two days because the principal had taken all my students to see the pope. Without me.
Attempt #3 was my first trip to Rome in 2001. I thought I was sure to see the pope this time. The tour guide broke the bad news. The pope wasn’t feeling well. No pope today.
As I sat in St. Peter’s Square this morning awaiting the pope’s Angelus, it occurred to me that in the past four months I’ve had three pope sightings to make up for my three pope “misses.” I saw the pope in April when I was here for the Canonization Mass of John Paul II. I saw him last Sunday at the Angelus, just hours after I landed, and then I saw him again today at the Angelus.
The pope’s words today (at least the ones I could understand) were very meaningful and moving for me today, in ways that are way too difficult to type out on my little iPad mini here. I guess you’ll all just have to wait for my memoir. Ha! Ha!
After the Angelus, I went to 1:00 mass at St. Peter’s. I had the same priest as last Sunday. The 1:00 mass is held at the Altar of St. Joseph, and I stayed there to pray for a bit afterwards. Lots of amazing little things during that mass, but I guess I’ll save those for the memoir as well.
The Altar of St. Joseph in St. Peter’s (not a bad place for Sunday masss)
After mass, I used some Italian to find the bathroom at St. Peter’s and then headed out for some gelato. (Lunch, anyone?) I was kind of hungry, so I used my good old Italian to get a large waffle cone with my favorite flavor, stracciatella. It was huge and immediately started dripping down in rivulets over the edge of the waffle cone, onto the paper wrapper, and right onto my hand. It didn’t seem to matter how quickly I licked up the sides or used my tiny plastic spoon to scoop it up. That gelato was determined to be a mess. I had planned to eat it while walking to the Metro, but the wind started blowing the ice cream in droplets right off my cone and onto my dress. Then my hair got whipped around and ended up in my mouth. When I tried to pull the hair out, it ended up in my ice cream. (Thank God, I’d just washed my hair before church!)
In short, it quickly became a complete mess. There was nothing for me to do but stop at the nearby Piazza del Risorgimento and eat my gelato without moving and letting the drips fall onto the grassy area over which I ate. Perhaps it was the fact that I had just come from church, but I got all philosophical over my ice cream cone. What’s the point of dripping gelato, Lord? Perhaps, a reminder that even the good things in life get a little messy from time to time, and it’s okay to take a moment and just let it be messy. You can always clean up afterward which is exactly what I did in a nearby fountain once I’d finished my lunch.
A Metro ride took me to the Santa Scala. These are the holy stairs Jesus walked up when he had to face Pontius Pilate. Now you might be thinking, “Um, I’m pretty sure Jesus did not go to Rome to face Pilate,” and you’d be right. St. Monica had the stairs moved from the Holy Land to Rome so that those who couldn’t make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land (like she did) could at least experience a piece of them.
The Scala Santa had been a stop on our pilgrimage in April, but I didn’t climb them then. You see, these marble stairs that Jesus climbed are now covered in wood with tiny slots through which you can see the marble. There are 26 of them, and you climb them on your knees, saying a different prayer on each step. They are located in a special building and surrounded by two walls.
When my pilgrimage group was here in April, all of Rome was overcrowded due to the big Canonization Mass. There was a long line to get in. Our tour guide said that he’d never seen it like that before. For those of us who didn’t want to wait, we could walk up these other stairs on the side and look down. I went inside and peaked down. The staircase, which normally has only 2-3 people lined up on each stair, was jam packed with 5-6 people across, squeezed together on each step.
I’m claustrophobic. Tight places (like MRIs) require medication. I’d brought some with me, but hadn’t taken it that morning because I hadn’t expected to need it. Also, I think I was feeling unworthy of being on those stairs. (That’s another long story I’ll save for the memoir. You’re all dying to read my imaginary memoir now, aren’t you?)
But today! Yes, today, I prayed my way up on the Scala Santa on my knees. And God blessed me once again. When I arrived, there was a huge open space at the bottom of the stairs, so as I climbed my way up, there was no one in front of me for at least five steps.
The moment my knees hit the first step I started crying. Good tears. Tears of thankfulness for Jesus’s sacrifice for us. Tears of gratitude for my trip. An overwhelming sense of awe over being on the same steps Jesus walked up, bloody and beaten from his torture.
I won’t lie, my knees were killing me after only a few steps, and my bag (filled with things the pope had blessed at the Angelus) was heavy. I lugged it up each step in front of me, dragging my aching body, worn out from days of walking the streets of Rome, one wood-covered step at a time, offering up a different intention on each stair and alternating between Our Fathers and Hail Marys.
As I’m typing this, it’s already after 11:00 at night, and I have class tomorrow, so I’ll speed you through the rest of the day.
After the Scala Santa, I headed across the street to St. John Lateran, the “mother of all churches.” Recognize it? It’s currently the background of my Facebook photo.
St. John Lateran
Then down the street about 10 minutes to San Clemente, a very interesting church. The current church was built on top of a fourth century church, which was built on top of a first century Roman home. For 5 Euros, you can tour the lower levels on your own. Signs everywhere tell you not to take photos, but I snatched a couple because it was just too interesting not to share.
Fourth century church under the current church
Another view of that fourth century church. Under it is a first-century home.
Then another short walk to San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains).
San Pietro in Vincoli
This church is known for two things. First, a statue of Moses by Michelangelo that was supposed to be put in a pope’s tomb, but that tomb never quite got finished.
Moses (with horns?) by Michelangelo
And then the chains that held St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Rome.
The chains that held the imprisoned St. Peter
The church closed at 7:00 p.m. I was there at the time. They rang some bells, and then a guy told everyone in English to please leave. Yep, that’s right. I closed a church tonight!
Rainy ride home tonight. Thankful for buses and the Metro!
One more thing: Remember that prayer card of John Paul II that my mom gave me when I was crying over missing him? I still have it. In fact, I brought it with me in April when I finally saw the pope for the first time, so it’s now been blessed by Pope Francis.
JP II Prayer Card