We have a list of things we never think we’ll do: climb Mount Everest, invent the next best thing to sliced bread, open a tuna-canning factory in Oregon (although, that last one sounds somewhat tempting…) For me, it was sleeping on the cobblestone of St. Peter’s Square.
Surprising, it was comfortable. I had my backpack under my head like a pillow, the rows of chairs around me supplying shade from the sun, and the 2 ½ hours we had to wait for mass to start gave me plenty of time to fall sound asleep.
But how does one take a nap in the middle of St. Peter’s square? It started the day before, at 2 pm, when about 150 Franciscan students boarded 3 buses headed for Rome. We drove through the night, stopping at several Austrian and Italian rest stops along the 14-hour trip (that’s right–14 hours on a bus. And that was only the beginning…) We were extremely grateful for the free WiFi at these stops (I got to Facetime my family at 2 am my time. They’re all doing great, thanks for asking), but we were less grateful that some of the restrooms cost €0.50 to use.
We arrived in Rome at 4:30 am and walked about 20 minutes to wait outside Vatican City. We waited for 2 ½ hours. The crowd grew larger and larger, more voices with even more languages breaking whatever still was left of the early morning. Then, as security opened at 7, it was every man for himself. Italians with green Mother Teresa hats plowed ahead, Indian nuns just short of my shoulder squeezed through tight groups of students, and one blind woman barreled through the crowd with two more (seeing) women in tow.
After about 45 minutes of feeling like a sardine as the crowd pressed closer and closer, leaving us no room to even turn around, the heat of our bodies feeling like a sauna, we made it through. I had lost the group I was with, so I just followed the closet Franciscan student and we once again fought our way to a seat.
Unfortunately, there were no seats left. All that pushing, all those nuns we shoved aside (hey–they shoved us first), all that waiting, and the only seats left were the cobblestones.
So that’s where I sat. And slept. And talked. And played a couple rounds of solitaire. And slept some more. Around me, other Franciscan students were doing the same, slumped against the chairs, concrete posts, and each other.
Mass finally began. I had been to large masses before–March for Life Youth Rally’s, Family Fest in Cleveland, and in Philadelphia when Pope Francis visited last September. But it’s different being in Rome, in the heart of the Church, with hundreds of thousands of other Catholics from around the world with you. There were Germans next to us, a Chinese couple in front, Indians waving their flag, Poles, Italians, Africans, Australians and New Zealanders, and, of course, other Americans. We couldn’t all understand each other, but when praying the Pater Noster with one voice, we were more united than any language could ever make us.
My group was to the front right of the obelisk, just close enough to see the Holy Father as he declared Mother Teresa of Calcutta a saint and then celebrated mass. The sun was scorching, there was not one cloud in the sky or a single breeze, but that mass will forever stand out in my memory as a truly great experience. Before, I had not given much thought to what would happen. The pope would say some words, Mother Teresa would be a saint (but we all knew that already) and then we’d celebrate mass. And yes, that happened, and yes, many watched it on television and heard the same words, but being in St. Peter’s Square on that oppressively hot day, with hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims wishing for water alongside you, was something that had to be experienced.
I feel like I’m trying to put words to something I still haven’t processed entirely, but here’s some advice: If you ever have the chance to go to a canonization mass, do it. You’ll hate yourself as you stand in the same spot for two hours. You’ll hate yourself as you let another tiny nun push her way in front of you in line. You’ll hate yourself as your bare knees become bruised on the rough cobblestones, as the sweat sticks your shirt to your back, as you become smellier and sweatier as the day goes on, but afterwards, the fruits of the day will be more than stinky and swollen feet or even that gelato bought from a Roman vendor.
We got back on our buses at 6 pm after being let loose in the city for the afternoon. By then, we had picked up several souvenirs, dozens of pictures at the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain, and delicious Italian pasta and pizza. The ride back was long. Most of us slept the whole time. Arriving in Gaming at 9 am on Monday, we picked up our bags and straggled to our rooms. Tomorrow’s a school day, but today is for sleep.