There is one thing that still surprises me about Italy: the Italians love the pope. Even when they don’t necessarily listen to or obey him on every point, even when he is not an Italian, the Italians have a genuine and very warm paternal relationship with the holder of the Keys. This Sunday, 150,000 people packed into St. Peter’s Piazza to hear Benedict XVI give an address after reciting the Regina Caeli, and to show their Holy Father their love and support after the trying period of the last few months.
I suppose coming from the Anglo world, imbued with its perpetually simmering anti-Catholicism inherited from the Elizabethans and the Glorious Revolution, it will always come as a pleasant surprise to see that, whatever vitriol the mainstream media of the anglosphere continues to pour onto this papacy, that vitriol is not the reality. Whatever Reuters or the New York Times or even Ansa will tell you, the crowd of over 150,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Piazza on Sunday were nearly beside themselves with joy to see their Papa.
It has been unseasonably cold and raining more or less steadily for weeks, and being still something of a newbie around here, I had not expected to have to hurry on Sunday. Still thinking like an Anglo and not expecting the Italian enthusiasm for their pope, I had planned to make my way over to St. Peter’s Piazza about 11:30, and thought I could take a leisurely 9:30 train into the City and take the bus down to the Campo di Fiori to have a sandwich and a cup of awful Roman tea first. But in the café a television was playing live coverage of the Piazza and I could see the crowd was already, at 10:45, starting to fill the huge space. I took my panino di pollo to go.
I had read that the Piazza could hold about 100,000 people, and remembered the day a couple of years ago when the Italians gathered to give a collective two-fingers-up to Rome’s heavily secularist Sapienza University, who had insulted their Holy Father by rescinding his invitation to speak. The English-language press was most reluctant to report that thousands of happy, shouting, smiling Sapienza students filled the square at the General Audience that week.
Today they are admitting that the Piazza held over 150,000 on Sunday, called together from all over Italy by a coalition of Italian lay associations - and that seems about right. What they don’t seem to want to report is the spell of joy that held them, many of whom waited for hours to see and hear and shout cheers to the pope.
The media love to report that Benedict is not as “charismatic” as his immediate predecessor, implying that his academic mind and reserved manner has failed to captivate the public. But they have underestimated the Italians, who buy Dante and Goethe to read on the train in the mornings. Benedict’s popularity shows that the Italians are not fools, and know how to judge the character of a man.
Today’s Associated Press headline “Thousands flock to Vatican to back pope over abuse,” demonstrates the MSM’s failure to Get It, more or less completely. The huge crowd of faithful was not there because of “abuse.” They were there for love.
I have been in large crowds plenty of times, but there is something about a Catholic rally in Rome that is different. There were immaculately dressed elderly Roman couples, he in felt fedora and she in fur-trimmed tweeds; there were hordes of kids in matching yellow and red caps sitting on the cobbles; young nuns in full habits; fathers holding their children on their shoulders; Roman fashionistas tottering on the cobbles in their ridiculous pointy heels talking, as all Romans do, loudly into their mobile phones; groups of 20-something university students holding banners that carried on the shout “We’re With Our Papa!” Signs showed that people had come from Umbria, Tuscany and Naples, and the coach buses lined up outside the colonnade kept bringing more.
I was reminded of World Youth Day, which I attended in Toronto in 2002, at which there were 800,000 equally happy people. But in the Piazza on Sunday, there was no hint of the rock-concert atmosphere that often typifies such Catholic “youth” events in North America. These people were there not to be entertained, but to pray, and their reverential decorum showed they knew how to behave in church, even an outdoor church. This was something natural to them, buried deep in their bones, in a way that North Americans cannot emulate. As I walked around taking pictures during the Mass, I realized no one was talking, not even the children. People stood or sat with heads bowed, listening, praying, giving responses in Italian. It is quite an experience to be in such a huge crowd when nearly all of them genuflect at once.
When the Mass was ended, and I had struggled to a spot close enough to the Apostolic Palace to get a good photo, all eyes turned up to the office window, second from the right, top floor, as everyone here knows. For half an hour cheers broke out, they chanted the name “Benedetto,” and young men and boys shouted “Viva il Papa!” followed by more cheers. About ten feet away from me, a plain-clothes Swiss Guard, complete with grey suit, dark glasses, microphone clipped to his collar and a coiled ear piece over one ear, saw me watching him with interest and smiled broadly, though he never stopped scanning the crowd.
At ten minutes to 12, the windows of the office opened and the two men who draped the long red velvet banner with the papal keys in gold were greeted with ecstatic shouts. For another few minutes, the excitement built and when the white figure of Pope Benedict appeared, arms raised in greeting, the crowd was a single voice of joy, like ocean breakers. Flags and signs, umbrellas, caps and jackets waved, beaming children bounced on their fathers’ shoulders, young nuns brushed away tears.
Standing there, listening to the sound of 150,000 voices praying the Regina Caeli in Latin, I was reminded that the doom and gloom conveyed by the media is not the full picture. Statements and press releases, even homilies and lectures, do not convey the foundational principle of the Catholic Church, which is love.
Love that cannot be conveyed in abstracts, or principles or even ultimately doctrines, but must by its nature be personal. Pope Benedict, the man, is loved by Catholics because he has defended the Truth, Christ, whom the Church teaches everyone needs, and without whom nothing is good, or beautiful or true. The real drama of the Catholic faith is this love, in the face of all the sneering vitriol and cynicism that the world can throw.
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