Bloody hell, but that was unnecessarily early start. The trip to Fiumicino Airport (8€ on the shuttle bus from Via Crescenzio 2) was on time and completely hassle-free, so I arrived with four hours to go until my flight – a new record in caution. Still, better early than late! It gives me time to relax and put yesterday morning into words.
All I can say to start with is believe in your own luck for a change. Because Sunday morning’s adventure wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t taken a chance.
One of the main reasons I came to Rome and stayed until this morning was because of the very real chance of seeing the Pope deliver his Palm Sunday Mass in St Peter’s Square. That’s not the kind of opportunity you pass up on if you can help it. Unfortunately, the information on the internet is vague, conflicting and genuinely quite hard to track down. Most of it implies you need to apply for a ticket directly to the Vatican via fax (!!), sometimes as early as three months in advance, to be in with a chance of securing a “coveted” ticket. At least, that’s what all the tour companies say. By Saturday night, I’d more or less given up on the whole affair and planned to go for a morning walk down the Via Appia instead.
Turns out the internet is wrong. So here’s me setting the record straight.
Contrary to what you may find online, you do not need a ticket to attend the Palm Sunday service in the Vatican City. It’s free and there’s no need to book!!!
I rocked up in my casual clothes with my picnic packed for the Via Appia and thought I’d check to see what was going on in VC and before I knew what I was doing I’d followed a whim and chanced the security barriers. They scanned my bag, found only a punnet of olives, a punnet of strawberries, breadsticks and some other snacks… and let me pass.
As it was still only 8.20am, St. Peter’s Square was still relatively empty. Thousands of chairs had been set up overnight, along with the temporary barriers raised around the central obelisk and the wind rose, but other than a small crowd settling into the first block of seats the pickings were good. I found a seat near the front of the second block, just two rows back from the barrier and strategically positioned behind two families who’d put their children in the seats directly in front, giving me a perfect view over their heads to the Papal seat. If I’d planned to come I could have arrived sooner and snagged the best seats in the house, but for a spur-of-the-moment decision I really lucked out.
By the time the warm-up Ave Marias were being chanted (in Italian, the real lingua franca of the Vatican), the seats on either side of me had been taken: by a diminutive group of Indian nuns on my right and a large Eurasian woman and her daughter on my left. I would have been squashed throughout the service had the nuns not seen on one of the telescreens that there were still five empty seats in the front block and gone charging off for a better seat, and my other neighbour left during the Communion after realising she was holding up the entire row by being the only one not going up for communion. By the end of the service, I had more room than I knew what to do with!
The Swiss Guard were quite a sight to see in their full regalia: plumed morion helmets, black capes worn about their landsknecht-esque striped uniforms and, at least in the hands of those guarding the cardinals’ seating area, impressive halberds, their tips flashing in the sun. I’m not sure if they’re more visible if you take a walk through St Peter’s basilica or the Musei Vaticani, but I certainly hadn’t seen them until now, so it was worth coming even if only for that!
And of course, Pope Francis himself, dressed in regal red until the end of the service. Since my wanderings tend to take me off the beaten track, the list of famous people I’ve encountered is downright pitiful, but this has got to rank right up at the top – like Pope Francis did in 2013’s Time Magazine. Seeing the warm smile of the humble head of the Catholic Church at such close quarters was a once-in-a-lifetime event, truly… I couldn’t help taking up the cry of ‘¡Viva el Papa!’ raised by the Colombian family in front of me. His humility is what makes him so inspirational to me – that a man in so important a position should have no qualms making apologies for centuries-old abuses of power by his institution, or reject the majesty of status outright while still holding true to the core values of the church. I might not have gone to such lengths for a different Pope, but for Francis, my feelings were genuine. What an inspiration!
I’ve also never seen a Palm Sunday service quite like it. Multilingual (there were readings in Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, Mandarin and Malayan, as well as Italian) and multifaceted: the song of Jesus’ arrest by Pilate and his Passion was performed by various cantors with the full choir as the voice of the crowd. Faith through storytelling through song… now that’s more like it! It was like watching a passion play of old – and in a very real sense, I suppose that’s exactly what it was. They’ve been doing the same thing here in this square for well over a thousand years.
The Pope ended the service with a reminder to care for the poor – ever at the heart of his urbi et orbi message. When I left, I saw that in the merry exodus from the square, some misguided pilgrims had smashed right through a street vendors’ wares, knocking them in all directions. As I approached, several strangers gathered round to help the man set his little stall back to rights. Just as there are those who profess to do good and look no further than their own backyards, so too are there people out there prepared to help their fellow man, whoever that may be. That gives me hope. To quote a famous film set in and around the Vatican City:
Religion is flawed, but only because man is flawed.Dan Brown, Angels and Demons
I’ve made it to the pueblo and a much-needed week with my cousins. It’s been fun wrangling with Italian, but these lips were meant for speaking castellano, hombre. Until next time! BB x