It’s 10 o’clock in the evening in Rome on the vigil of the historic two-pope canonization and the dome of St. Peter’s is like a beacon, calling the world to prayer, shining in the night.
Thousands of pilgrims are gathering around it for the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II. In fact, there are so many that it is impossible to arrive within sight of the Square. The best one can hope for is the view from down the Tiber on Bernini’s bridge.
United with those camped out in St. Peter’s are the pilgrims at the prayer vigils in many of Rome’s numerous churches. People of all nations -- Filipinos, Italians, Mexicans, Frenchmen, Poles, Lebanese -- are going to confession, praying in adoration, singing the Regina Caeli and Tantum Ergo, reciting prayers, and spontaneously giving thanks to God. An Italian, who wandered into St. Francis of the Stigmata Church, seems to glow after an hour spent in what he describes “as opening his heart."
What is going on inside this church, dedicated to the current Pope’s namesake, may be what many think Pope Francis is calling for within the universal Church: a return to the heart of the Gospel, a spiritual poverty which is the only source of true human freedom.
Don Fabio Rossini, perhaps the best preacher in the Diocese of Rome, who has renewed the spiritual life in thousands of people, is here organizing the confessions.
An Opus Dei priest leaving the confessional well after 1AM explains that he thinks the two soon-to-be-canonized Popes represent two models of sanctity, the personal approach to God and evangelization, both of which are an emptying of the self and a pointing to Him.
A group of young pilgrims passes outside in the small hours of the morning, singing hymns. A young Romanian, working in Italy as an electrician, rails at them. He explains that he is sure a Third World War is soon to start: Putin supports Syria, he says, and Ukraine is seeking help from the EU, UN, and the US. Alas, he doesn’t think prayer can change anything. His pessimism is eclipsed by an atmosphere of hope.
In Piazza Navona, pilgrims are sitting at cafes that will not be open for several hours or lying in sleeping bags on the ground. Italian revelers mock them and passing through Campo dei Fiori, with its statue commemorating a heretic burned at the stake, one sees that not all those in Rome are awaiting the canonization.
However, in the early morning, hundreds of thousands converge. Those who did not arrive at least 12 hours before the Mass are lucky to see it on one of the jumbo-screens. Even the competition for that is fierce, but in the midst of this perfect storm of humanity, friendships manage to be born. People from next door and the other side of the world meet and share their stories. People who cannot speak each other’s languages manage to communicate a respect for one another and one another’s dignity as human beings.
The doom filled predictions of the melancholy Romanian are wrong when we dare to hope. If the two great saints raised to the altars on Sunday taught us anything, it was that.