Monday, October 3, 2016

Trip to Rome (Pt 2): Jubilee for Workers and Volunteers of Mercy

(You can read Part I here.)

There were many, many different events on the schedule for the Canonization weekend. A prayer vigil, Adoration, a special dinner for the homeless, Masses, concerts, and so on.

Chairs are set out--check.  Mother Teresa tapestry hung up--check. Go time.

And right in the middle of it all, on Saturday morning, they squeezed in one more big celebration. This one was sort of an excuse to hold Jubilee-within-a-Jubilee, to recognize and encourage the work done by people who devote themselves to acts of mercy (medical workers, volunteers at food pantries or crisis shelters, caregivers for the disabled or the elderly, humanitarian workers of various kinds, etc.).

The entire weekend, with all the various liturgies and processions, was considered by some to be the focal point of the entire Year of Mercy: the canonization of an icon of selfless service of others paired with this particular jubilee, all of it presided by the Pope who can't seem to say enough about the Mercy of God.

Pilgrims walking the designated path from Castel San'Angelo
to St. Peter's,for the Year of Mercy

Going into this trip I knew all of that beforehand, but even so, I was unprepared for just how many really good surprises there would be. Now that it's been several weeks since my return, you'd think I'd be able to keep from gushing in the reporting and re-telling, but I guess you'd be wrong. Fair warning.

On the morning of the Jubilee for Workers, the VIP seats on the inside of the center aisle at St. Peter's Square were very appropriately reserved for a few handpicked guests: the elderly and disabled, many of them wheelchair-bound.

There were tens of thousands present, but the Square was not even close to being full (the really big crowd wasn't expected until the following morning).  I arrived early enough to snag an empty seat just a few chairs in from the center aisle.
Then, all we had to do was wait a couple of hours for the festivities to begin.

It turns out that a program had been prepared for the duration of the wait: musical performances, personal testimonies, and so on. Rescue workers from the recent earthquake in central Italy gave accounts of their mission and brought in one of their trained dogs for public praise. Too bad for me that I can understand just enough Italian to follow the main thread of the story and miss the key points and punchline...(sigh).

Other speakers included a displaced Assyrian Catholic who told his story of evacuation due to the war; he made sure to tell us about his church back home where the local liturgies are still in Aramaic: "the language Jesus spoke," he emphasized. There was a Palestinian Christian who greeted us all in Arabic and then shared a firsthand account of what being a refugee in Italy looks like. One of my favorite musical guests was a young boy (from Tajikistan I think they said, or maybe Turkmenistan...?) who played a kind of xylophone with piano accompaniment.  

It was a big day for the Missionaries of Charity, of course, and about 50 sat down in my vicinity. When it came time for a close-up viewing of il Papa Francesco, my spot was in high demand and I was surrounded on all sides by eager sisters. Well who could blame them: they were some of the very few members of the M.C. community who were able to travel out for the weekend (from other European cities, mostly) and no way were any of us going to deny them their moment! 

Lucky for me, I am taller than most and can just hold my camera up higher than they can reach:


MC hands
This moment was an all-time favorite:

Here, Pope Francis, who had been zipping around the Square in his "mobile" stopped so an elderly MC Sister could drape a garland of flowers around his neck. She is Sister Clare and she joined Mother Teresa back in the '50's when she was first starting out into the slums of Calcutta after leaving the convent of Loreto. I was told by my seat-neighbors that Sister Clare along with Sr. Francesca (who was also seated along the center aisle) are among only three surviving sisters from the original group of ten who were the first to profess vows as Missionaries of Charity, way back when the order was just founded. You bet they were on the short list for seats of honor! This encounter between the Pope and Sr. Claire was the image of choice for the event reports later on (though the angle is somewhat better than what I was able to capture).


Let me rewind for just a second to try to give a sense of what it was like out there in that Square, for hours upon hours in the scorching heat and sun. There we all were, thousands and thousands of us sitting and waiting for several hours, and feeling like it was worth every minute. The sense of hope within the testimonies of those up on stage, the music, and the conversation with our seat-neighbors all heightened the energy of the crowd. In the few words of whichever common language we shared with our close neighbors, we managed to exchange personal stories or to tell about what brought us to be there on that day. So many folks who had traveled so far, so hard work and fight for survival and love. It was a great party.

And then, if it were even possible, we all got even more worked up, as the scheduled pre-program wrapped up and there was silence from the front of the Square for the first time in a couple of hours. The crowd started buzzing, standing up to stretch our necks to see from which corner of the Square the guest of honor would first appear. People were falling all over themselves, climbing up on the chairs, or getting babies into strategic positions in order to receive personal blessings.

Finally, while we kept ourselves from completely trampling each other in our eagerness, the Pope finally arrived. He was driven through the Square, greeting and blessing the people until at last he made his way to the central dais. A few introductory comments from the emcee, some readings, a testimony from Missionary of Charity Sr. Sally (the only surviving sister from the Yemen attack last year*), and it was his turn to speak. 

That's when the mood of the Square completely changed.

This Pope seems to be able to do that. It is hard not to pay attention to what he says, and it is not because he has a strong voice or is a striking person, physically speaking. He spoke quietly, slowly and very soberly. His voice is that of an old man, which is only to be expected, and at first I thought, "He sounds tired."  Maybe he was, but I think that it was the startling contrast to all the strong, and mostly young, voices we had been listening to all morning that made me mistake it at first for fatigue.

He talked about the love of God, that is not vague or abstract, but tangible. Love in action is what God gave us in his Son; and that is the example we are called to follow:
It is not worthy of the Church nor of any Christian to "pass by on the other side" and to pretend to have a clean conscience simply because we have said our prayers or because we have been to Mass on Sunday. No. Calvary is always real. 
If there had been any hint of self-congratulatory hype in the celebration, any inwardly directed pats on the back, he reversed them all, and drawing out in their place an attitude of openness, humility and prayer.

It was only later back at my hostel, once I could get online to read the full text and translation of his speech, that I was able to understand his actual words out there in the Square. But while I was out there, overheating in the harsh sunshine and straining to catch whatever Italian words I could recognize, I simply knew that Pope Francis had come prepared to meet with us and with a message for all of us out there in that mass of people. I didn't understand how, but I knew that he was accomplishing something exceptional.

It was remarkable. Like so many others, I had come to Rome with fairly clear reasons for being there, and some expectations of what I would get out of it, but then he gathered up all of that anticipation and hope and excitement, and took it even further.  

Here is a full-coverage video of the scene, if you want to click through to get some impressions.  I don't show up in the background while he is embracing Sr. Clare, but I promise I was there, only a few feet away!  Sr. Sally's story is in there, too, at around 2:15:00.

*Sister Sally's statement begins in the above video at 2:14:30 and is in English.

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