Friday, May 6, 2011

Part II: Getting to the most crowded beatification in history

On Saturday, April 30, I was set to meet a friend from the US who is studying in Rome at 11 pm to wait in “line.” My American mind considered that the line for the beatification would consist of a long, narrow, snaking but orderly chain of people, patiently waiting for the gates of St. Peter’s to open at 5:30 am. When we neared the basilica, however, I remembered that I was in Europe. There was certainly no order to the sea of humanity. There were sleeping bags and cardboard boxes, guitars and bongos, backpacks and plastic bags, waving flags and Vatican-“emblemed” inflatable hands. So we weaved through the crowds, attempting to find a comfortable place to set up camp for the night. Eventually, we found an open side street that feeds onto the Via de Conciliazione – the main street leading to the Vatican, which was closed at 11 pm.

Amidst a pack of pilgrims from around the world (but in our corner of the street, the majority were from Poland), we set up camp. For about an hour or so, we listened to Polish hymns, praise and worship and a beautifully sung Rosary. We watched with humor and horror as more people attempted to cram into the already-full street. At times, young people would yell, “No!” as they saw more individuals squeeze through the crowd, stepping on people, knocking faces with heavy backpacks and fighting forward with iron wills and determination. Those in the crowd who were attempting to get some sleep, stared at the sky with wide-open eyes, hopefully grateful that they at least had a couple of feet in which to lie down, as opposed to the mere inches the rest of us were fighting to keep.

At about 1 am, there was a crescendoed whisper among the crowd. Within seconds everyone was on their feet, scrambling to pack their few belongings, deflate air mattresses, roll sleeping bags and save guitars from a (literally) crushing fate. And then the smushing began. Each pilgrim seemed to believe that no millimeter in the street should be left without the comfort of a human person filling it. And so we were pushed, pulled, moved, tugged, and contortioned for several minutes, always inching forward toward the Via de Conciliazione.

It wasn’t long before the barricades in front of the main road leading to the Vatican were removed, and overly eager pilgrims began pushing themselves past the guards, ignoring booming yells to “Fermare!” (stop!). A few official volunteers, designated by their yellow vests (which aptly said in Italian, “Be not afraid” on the back), assisted the police in holding back the crowds … or at least those of the crowds obedient enough to wait a few moments before cramming onto a new street. Once onto the Via de Conciliazione, pilgrims would run with startling urgency to get as close to the front as possible.

Eventually we made it onto the main road, deciding to stay close to the barricade, which we assumed would guard the popemobile in the morning. And there we stood for the next several hours. Yes, stood. The sixty or seventy year old Polish woman to my right scooted her plastic stool to touch my foot. Another woman behind me tapped me on the leg and asked me in another language to move forward. Move where? I gestured. Moving was impossible. In fact, the greatest crisis of the middle of the night was the consistent call to police and volunteers from members of the crowd for a bathroom. One man whined in Italian, “Look at me – a grown man crying like a baby!” Another responded to police who pointed out a portalet on the other side of the road, “I want to see you get over there in this crowd!” So, in the Italian’s casual, laid back style, individuals were let past the barricade throughout the night in order to be escorted to bathrooms within St. Peter’s square. The rest of us simply waited.

We stood. We watched people of varying ages and constitutions pass out throughout the night. Each was led to the barricade, while a volunteer held his feet in the air and dumped a packet of zucchero (sugar) into his mouth. Eventually the individual would be escorted away – either back into the crowd or to a medical assistance tent in a different area. We saw some stretchers and some wheelchairs. We watched the medical personnel take turns smoking cigarettes as they paced back and forth, telling jokes to each other or to members of the crowd, leaning on the barricade.

We stood. We leaned on the barricade. We talked about how this event (which was more aptly a pre-event, and not an event in itself) resembled a World Youth Day, but without an age limit. We marveled at the men and women in their sixties and seventies who had resolutely determined to find a spot in St. Peter’s Square, even if it meant sacrificing a night of sleep.

We stood. We prayed that the rain predicted to fall at 2 am would pass us by. We took a deep breath when a rain drop or two fell in the middle of the night. Amazingly, those few drops were the only ones to fall.

We stood. We watched the clock, wondering if perhaps the police would let us into the Square before 5:30 am. As 5:30 inched closer, the crowds became more restless, deciding to attempt the impossible feat of cramming even closer, as if a fraction of an inch meant the difference between passing through the Square or remaining in the street.

When the Square was finally opened, we waited for 2-3 more hours, creeping along the barricade, hoping to get a spot within the arms of the Church. And finally at about 8:30 am, we made it! Finding a spot along the barricade, just feet outside of the technical Square, but within the St. Peter’s area and near a jumbotron, we decided to stake out our spot. What a miracle! Still standing, with perhaps a million or more people behind us, we had arrived at our destination.

Part III: Beato Giovanni Paolo II ...

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