Saturday, January 17, 2015

Almost, Pope Francis

The closest that I ever got to Pope Francis was in the Vatican itself in May of last year. It was the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. You could say it was a pretty historic moment. We started out from the hotel at four in the morning, but by the time we got to St. Peter's Square it was already packed with devotees. Some had been camping there since the day before. I was told that pilgrims from John Paul II's native Poland had actually walked for two weeks so they could be there.

Our group had decided to try to inch our way forward from the street where we had entered. No dice. We were jammed tight shoulder to shoulder with everybody else. A lady from Malta almost fainted. Fisticuffs almost broke out between one of our friends and a rude Italian (and I have since learned, Italians are in general rude and nasty.) In the end, we stayed where we were. St. Peter's Square, the main altar, and Pope Francis -- they were just around the bend, probably twenty paces forward, a corner turn, and then probably four blocks straight on. Between us: about a million people, or so it seemed. So close yet so far.

In time the canonization rites finished. The crowds began to disperse and there was breathing room again. Part of our group wanted to go back to the hotel -- we were tired and irritable. We took it to a vote. We had come all that long way and we might never find ourselves back there again, so why not head on to the main square. And so we did. We trudged on, brushing past the million people heading the opposite direction or across, over litter scattered everywhere. Miserable, miserable.

And then...we reached a certain vantage point where I could see the main plaza of the square, the obelisk straight ahead, and to the left and to the right the columns and on them the statues of the apostles and the saints. It finally hit me. I was in St. Peter's Square. My head was awhirl.

On the jumbotron I could see Pope Francis greeting the dignitaries. They came in a line. All around us were still the million people. It all seemed so unreal, like in a dream. And yet...reality was also calling.

"I found a bathroom!" one of our companions yelled. "It's over in the souvenir shop."

So yes, we hurried over. We fell in line, shuffling forward, crossing our legs and fidgeting. Do you know that feeling when you finally get your turn and you can let it all go? I swear I heard the angels sing their hallelujahs.

We got out, finally, back to the mob.

"Pope Francis! Pope Francis!" I heard another fellow pilgrim shout.

"Where?" I said.

"We saw him as he passed by in his Popemobile. We got a picture!"

"Where?"

"Oh, he's gone now."

Shit.

So was born the joke between my wife and myself. If we should ever meet Pope Francis again, we would tell him: "We were there at the canonization. We waved at you." Pause. "You didn't wave back."

And now Pope Francis is in Manila and I'm in Davao. When we first heard about the apostolic visit, we harbored the secret hope that he would pay Mindanao a visit. No dice. The joke would have to wait another day.

After all the hijinks we've been through in Italy, I thought I'd find this whole visit to be so blah. After all, I had been that much closer to Pope Francis many months ago (and I missed him because I was in the bathroom), what's so special about seeing him on TV? And yet...and yet...last Thursday, when I entered the office, the TV was on and my colleagues gathered around it. The plane had landed, and they were opening the door. Each time Pope Francis made as if to stand, I cheered. I don't know why.

Then the airplane door finally opened, and the two dignitaries went in, and a few moments later Pope Francis stepped out, a gust of wind blowing away his zucchetto.... Well.

Welcome to the Philippines, Pope Francis. Thank you for the visit.