Those readers who have been to Rome might wonder why I have never written in these weekly postings about going to a papal audience. I confess I have not been to one for many years, but recently that changed. On November 15th this year I attended an outdoor papal audience in Saint Peter’s Square and was pleasantly surprised. Not that I attended an audience was a surprise, but that it lasted only an hour!
Let me back up and explain some. The last time I went to a papal audience was during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. It was raining hard off and on that day but the audience went on. In fact it seemed to go on and on, for a couple of hours or more. With the rain, and even an umbrella in hand, I and other attendees got soaked. I guess we could have left at any time, but few wanted to miss seeing the pope, even if it meant getting wet!
Long papal audiences are what I recall also from attending one or two of them during the pontificate of Pope, now Saint, John Paul II. Rain or shine, papal audiences usually lasted some hours, until more recent times, I presume, and only with the pontificate of Pope Francis.
Most of the year papal audiences are held outdoors, in Saint Peter’s Square, which can accommodate many thousands of pilgrims. In the colder months, December through April, I presume, the audiences are held in a huge auditorium, which holds many, but far fewer that Saint Peter’s Square.
I was half way expecting the November 15th audience that I attended this year to be indoors with temperatures beginning to drop in Rome, though not yet really cold. Morning temperatures were in the low 50s this year. Presumably to accommodate more people and because it was not truly cold, the audience on November 12th was outdoors.
Tickets, free of charge, must be obtained to attend a papal audience. Without a ticket one can still stand close to Saint Peter’s Square, but with a ticket one can get closer and also have a seat. I obtained tickets from the Swiss Guards at Porta Santa Anna, one of the entrances into the Vatican City. I or anyone, I presume, simply needs to ask for tickets for the forthcoming audience, meaning going there on Monday or Tuesday, as the audiences, held only when the pope is home, are on Wednesdays.
With tickets in hand, I and another monk from our curia reached Saint Peter’s Square a little before 9:00 am on November 15th. The seating area already looked full and the lines for passing through security looked long. We found a less crowed entry into the Square and got through the line quickly. When we reached the seating area, there were still plenty of seats. We found seats and waited for the audience to begin, presumably in another forty-five minutes or so.
By about 9:30 am, just fifteen minutes after being seated, announcements were made over the PA system by a priest at the stage, permanently set up at the top of the steps leading into Saint Peter’s Basilica. The priest read out the names of various groups present that morning. As each group, parish, association or religious Congregation was announced, people, presumably belonging to the group just announced, would clap and shout in recognition of their presence. Since papal audiences, whether indoors or out, and not exactly religious functions, such as a Mass, clapping and shouting at appropriate moments are very acceptable.
After the announcements were made, Pope Francis appeared in his vehicle, popularly called the “popemobile.” He was being driven slowly through Saint Peter’s Square and stopped at various points to bless people, take babies in his arms and shake hands. This lasted about fifteen minutes, until 10:00 when the pope got out of the vehicle and went up the stairs to the stage area in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Now at the covered stage, the pope began with the sign of the Cross, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” to which all responded, “Amen.” He then greeted all with a “Buongiorno,” (good day), waved to all, then sat down, along with the several thousand in attendance that morning. Some in front, closer to the stage, didn’t sit down, and there were shouts of, “sit down,” from people behind, so that all might see the stage and the pope! I hope it is still clear that this was not a Mass, where a “Buongiorno” by the celebrant is out of place, and shouting to one another is as well!
At a podium on the stage and near the pope, a short Gospel text was then read in succession by priests in various languages, including Italian, English, Spanish, German, Polish and Arabic. I may be forgetting one or two other languages.
After the Gospel reading in the various languages, about Jesus teaching his disciples to pray what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer,” the pope gave a brief commentary in Italian. The pope’s reflection was followed by a summary given in the various languages of the Gospel proclamations earlier.
There were also some greetings to the various language groups, then the praying of the Our Father in Latin, lead by the pope, and the audience was finished, in just twenty-five minutes or so after 10:00 am. The pope walked down the steps of Saint Peter’s to greet some people seated near the front, and the rest of the attendees began to disperse out of Saint Peter’s Square, as they clearly seemed to realize that the pope was not going to speak further to the crowds or be driven around the piazza any more. I was pleasantly surprised by the brevity of the audience.
With cool temperatures that morning, and looking like it might start raining any moment, I breathed a sigh of relief that the audience was ending, that the pope had seemed relaxed and cordial, even to an crowd of thousands, and I could head back to Sant’Ambrogio where I live, content at what I and my confrere had just experienced in the Eternal City on that particular autumn day.