Palm Sunday at the Vatican

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I had planned over a month ago to attend the Palm Sunday service at the Vatican. Little did I know how difficult tickets would be to obtain! 4 days before the service, I asked Marco at the front desk of Accent if the Vatican had faxed back about the 10 tickets I had asked for. (A bunch of other students wanted to come with) Unfortunately they had never replied, which he says often happens if they don’t have enough tickets. Luckily, Molly’s host family happened to have 4 tickets that they weren’t planning on using…so 4 of us could go! (Little did we know that the tickets would not even be looked at)

I had to wake up bright and early at 5:30am. Today was also daylight savings in Italy, which meant 5:30am felt like 4:30am. I had gone to bed at 11pm the evening before, but sleep still felt heavy on me as I quickly downed two hardboiled eggs, two slices of toast, and some cereal. I ate a large breakfast because I had no idea what to expect. Could I bring water to the mass, food? Could I leave to go the bathroom? I hesitantly drank a bit of water and got dressed. I wanted to “dress up” for my “meeting with God” but none of my dresses went below my knees, so I had to make do with black jeans and a blue blazer from Gap. Of course, one doesn’t need to dress up for God and I was happy to learn that at Mass at the Vatican, most people wear jeans!

I ran from my apartment at 6:32am, feeling late since I was supposed to meet Molly and Lindsey at the Vatican at 6:45. I managed to book it and make it to the northern colonnade only 2 minutes late. Already the line was backed up. I ran up to Lindsey who had already grabbed us a spot. The doors wouldn’t open until 7:30.

We stood in line, uncomfortably close to some old Italian women who kept pushing us forward even though they weren’t yet letting people in through security. A man counted down to 10 and yelled in Italian, “7:30! Let us in!” A few moments later, the crowd surged forward and we rushed through the metal detectors. Everyone was making a run for the seats in the square. We quickly grabbed some olive branches from a large pile and then ran to the area we thought was for us. But once we got there, we realized we could get even closer, so we turned around and ran up the side to the 5TH ROW. We were as close as you could get without getting one of the special “white tickets” which allows you to sit up on the platform and to the side of the Pope. (How do you get those, by the way?!) Not only were our seats close to the front, we were two seats from the center aisle where the processional for Palm Sunday would walk by and where Pope Francis would later drive by in his pope-mobile. We sat waiting until 9am when the service would start, and met several nuns from Ann-Arbor, Michigan, here visiting Rome for the next year. They were very friendly and asked about our studies here in Rome.

30 minutes before 9, a woman speaker started going through the rosary and everyone repeated some lines dozens of times. I’m Lutheran as you can tell…

By 9am we all anxiously waiting for the processional, which would start on the right hand side of St. Peter’s and then wrap around the obelisk in the center, and finally end with a walk down the middle by us to the main alter. At the obelisk, Francis blessed all of the palm fronds and olive branches.

I stood waited to see from afar what was going on, since I was so close I couldn’t see the TVs projecting the service.

The air smelt like clay, which I think was due to the olive branches and the dusty chairs we were sitting/standing on. Everyone was quite silent during parts of the service and when music played. The power of the service amazed me. Everyone would glare if someone’s cell phone went off and feel sad if a baby started crying.

Suddenly the processional made it to my area. The front of the processional included altar boys and men carrying smoke and incense. Then a large crowd of selected “commoners” including many from Poland, carried palm fronds. This was followed by more priests and cardinals, and finally Papa Francis himself! As he walked slowly by, he seemed more frail than I had imagined. So small yet resolute. He is a man who wears a heavy burden on his shoulders.

Then we had the service! It was mostly in Italian with only one reading in English (Isaiah 50, 4-7). Later on there were some lines said in other languages such as Swahili and Chinese, which was cool to hear. Apparently we could have listened to the service online in English but I didn’t know until after the fact. (A shame!)

The service was very long. So long that I grew very tired and hot from the sun baking on my back. It was a very beautiful day without a cloud in the sky.

Finally we had communion. Being a Lutheran, I stayed out of it, and had to slight awkwardly as dozens of people crawled through the aisles of seats to get bread from a priest in bright red. Next to him stood (I assume) a Vatican guard holding a bright yellow and white parasol to shade him from the sun. It was a beautiful sight to see: Believers getting communion on a bright blue day from a priest in white, yellow and red. Once our section was done he moved on. How they managed to walk through whole crowd baffles me still.

Once the service was over, we stacked our chairs and everyone crowded to the center. We cheered on “Papa Francis!” as he walked towards us and hopped on the pope-mobile. He drove in a few circuits around the whole square and it was fun to hear people cheer as he came by. It was crazy how close I got to be by him! Only a few feet!

I left mass with my olive branch and a piece of the palm frond I was given, feeling quite happy but tired. I quickly dodged the crowd and walked north to my favorite 24-hour bakery, and bought 2 croissants with creme and 2 “bombas” with Nutella filling. I made it home and devoured 2 of them before proceeding to pass out for two hours.

The mixture of sunshine, prayer, and spiritualness had really tired me out!!

Here are some highlights in English from the service, whose topic today was about humility and the upcoming Holy Week:

“We are helped and comforted by the example of so many men and women who, in silence and hiddenness, sacrifice themselves daily to serve others: a sick relative, an elderly person living alone, a disabled person…

We think too of the humiliation endured by all those who, for their lives of fidelity to the Gospel, encounter discrimination and pay a personal price. We think too of our brothers and sisters who are persecuted because they are Christians, the martyrs of our own time. They refuse to deny Jesus and they endure insult and injury with dignity. They follow him on his way. We can speak of a “cloud of witnesses” (cf. Heb 12:1).

Let us set about with determination along this same path, with immense love for him, our Lord and Saviour. Love will guide us and give us strength. For where he is, we too shall be (cf. Jn 12:26). Amen.”

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