Rome, saints, popes & the poor

Written by Peter Smith on .


A few miscellaneous impressions from a week in Rome, covering the canonizations of two recent popes, a cameo appearance by a retired one, an audience with the current one and the doings of a group of about 90 pilgrims from Pittsburgh. Plus some of my own wanderings around the eternal city in off moments.

Divine Mercy and human nature: April 27 was Divine Mercy Sunday, based on a series of devotions by a Polish saint dear to the late John Paul II, who so designated the first Sunday after Easter. (Part of the poignancy of the canonization date for John Paul, who was sainted along with predecessor John XXIIIm was this convergence of Divine Mercy Sunday.) But human nature was something else as hundreds of thousands jammed every inch of free space in and far around St. Peter's Square. Some used sharp elbows and a ruthlessness to push past, and sometimes over, their fellow pilgrims. We were all jammed like sardines in place for hours, and the majority of pilgrims int he multi-national, multi-lingual crowd got along famously, sensing the global bonds of their church. But some seemed under the impression than in order to inherit the earth, the meek need to fight for every inch they can get.

Poland on the Tiber: One could hear as much or more Polish than Italian in and around the Vatican this past week, showing once again the massive outpouring of devotion to native son John Paul. It was impressive to see so many Poles singing, dancing and praying throughout the week. It made me wish I had spent the previous weeks brushing up on my rudimentary Polish rather than my rudimentary Italian. (I know enough European languages to have mangled a half-dozen of them in the past week, by the end of which even my English was coming out as a hybrid in phrases such as mi scuz-me.) In fact, the other major categories of pilgrims I saw were from Croatia, Slovakia and other lands that feel a kinship with the Slavic John Paul; Latin Americans, particularly Mexicans, who held many spirited singing and dancing sessions in the square; and North Americans. There were also fair contingents from many other lands, from France and Germany to Uganda and Nigeria. But other than those working in the shops, Italians seemed to have a relatively low profile on Sunday, for all the admiration that Italians, particularly older ones, have had for John XXIII. He's still remembered as "il papa buono," or as one vendor translated it, "papa good," but when he memorably told a crowd in St. Peter's Square to give their children a good-night kiss for them, well, those children are now well into their 50s and 60s. (I wonder if they remember their parents following through.) But John XXIII seemed to be something of an asterisk at the canonization, which despite equal billing in Vatican displays and words seemed to be the day of John Paul II. Even as a Polish pope, the latter did make strides to bond with the locals as longtime bishop of Rome, visiting most of its many churches and Italy's major shrines, and speaking of "our" Italian language. But Italians were far more visible and vocal in the crowd of about 60,000 on Wednesday for Pope Francis' general audience. Dozens of Italian church and school groups cheered as they were announced as present for the audience. So this is just an on-the-ground impression, but it seems as if a new generation of Italians has found a papa buono. In fact, news reports say there's a bumper crop of Italian baby boys named "Francis" and that a survey of priests reported increases in Mass attendence under the Francis effect. If we see live to see a day when Francis himself becomes a saint, and not just a magazine cover subject, it will be interesting to see how many of those cheering students will be returning to the ceremony in the full flower of maturity.

Begging the question: American couple, overheard in an Italian restaurant:Man: "Why do tourists come to Italy?"Long pause. Woman: "Because Ronan history is everyone's history. "Man: "But why should that matter if nobody cares about history?"

Desperation: Francis has talked about the church being for the poor. It certainly has work cut out for it right at its heart. Rome has always been chaotic blend of festive tourists, leisurely diners and desperately poor beggars and vendors. These days many street corners seem occupied by young South Asians with blank, forlorn expressions. Many of them have the job of demonstrating all day long a toy made of a gel that looks like a blob creature. You throw it down, it squeaks and goes flat, then re-forms. The toy is a weak joke to begin with. Whatever momentary giggle it might provide is overrun by the desperate look on these vendors. Splat. Squeak. Splat. Squeak. All day long. What does any church, any religion or other ideology, have to some so close yet so far from the surrounding euphorias of pilgrims and tourists?

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