Dear Bobby,This was a busy week like most, compounded by the fact that I have been downtown trying to participate in all the mourning and celebrating that is happening here for John Paul II. It is neat, to speak mildly. I was actually in Venice on Saturday when he died, and came back Sunday night. On Monday at 10pm, I was finally free to go downtown and check out the square, adn get in line to see him lie in state. For a variety of reasons I was by myself and ended up waiting alone in a line of hundreds for three and ahalf hours until i made it through the doors of the basilica at about 1:30 am. Besides the fact that the experience itself was overwhelming and awesome, I'm glad I went down when I did because the line only got longer - by Thursday the patriarchs of Rome and the police were urging people NOT to get in line. At that point, the people who were waiting were in a 55 hour wait!
At the beginning of the week back in Rome, it seemed to me that as you moved away from St Peter's, it was almost as though nothing had changed. There were posters up all around the city with his photo and different prayers printed on them, but traffic was more or less normal and it seemed like everyone was doing their regular business. Closer to the square and later in the week, that was not the case. Authorities estimated that by Friday there would be 2 million pilgrims in Rome; two million pilgrims came from Poland alone. When I was down on Monday night, it was packed. The line moved like what it was - a mass of tightly packed, anxious bodies, in big halting chunks about ten or twenty meters at a time. Even that early in the week (that was right after they opened St. Peter's up for public viewing) they had screens along Via della Conciliazione set up, broadcasting images from Pope John Paul's life and prayers, and they were playing music and Scripture readings over the loudspeaker. Truthfully, it was a moving spiritual experience, maybe even more so because at that time I was alone (if you can call it htat in a crowd of hundreds). I only walked by the body for a total of maybe 10 seconds and barely glimpsed it, but it was worth it.
On Friday I was at the funeral. I left the Center Thursday night at 7pm with a group of Rome Center students and PJ and we went in centro to try to meet up with a group of seminarians from the North American College that we know, to find a good spot to camp out for the night so we could see if we could in or anywhere near the square the next morning. They were supposed to open up St Peter's square at 5 or 6 in the morning. We found the seminarians really easily, which was a feat considering the massive crowds. There were people EVERYWHERE - a lot of people were leaving or milling around that had been waiting in lie to see the pope but they had closed the doors. We had a great spot really near the colonnade and settled down - about 10 Rome Center students and bunch of guys from the NAC. We were in an area where a ton of other people, mostly young people, had settled. People were praying and singing and trying to sleep. Naturally, the Italian police kicked us out after a period, even though that had told the guys from the NAC, who had been there since 4pm, that they woudl be near the entrance and could stay there all night - we spent the next few hours litigating with various guards, trying to get our seminarian friends with their clerics to bust us in to where it was possibel to wait in line. I won't fill this email with all the adventures of the night, but due to the concerted effort of one seminarian named Dude, he got us through the barricades and onto Via della Conciliazione(the wide straight street that runs directly up to St Peters) which was sort of like being on the VIP list. It was basically as close as you could get to wait, there were many less people camped out there. We set up shop within close sight of the basilica, all lit up and beautiful at night. It was amazing. I think I probably slept, or at least laid down, for maybe 45 minutes. Honestly, we were all having too much fun being together, praying together, eating candy, and chatting with reporters and other people who were waiting. I ended up the next morning at 10 am in Piazza San Pietro, to left and slightly forward of the obelisk, within good sight of the screen on the left and a diagonal view of the altar and casket. I don't know if you watched any of it, but the Mass itself was beautiful.
Those 20 hours with good friends, praying and waiting for the funeral and participating (we actually managed to get Communion!) were some of the most memorable of my life. I think the word that characterizes the atmosphere around Rome for this entire word is joyous, rather than mournful. The crowds were incredible - huge, and loud, and totally involved. I think people were mourning, but it wasn't as somber as I think a funeral week would have been for another world leader, probably because Pope John Paul was as sick as he was, and as old. There was a lot of prayer, but there was also a lot of laughing and fun happening in the crowd too, a sense of celebrating John Paul's life and just plain appreciating him and loving him. I've never been in a crowd that large in my life that had a similar feeling of purpose. You could almost say that it was like camping out for a rock concert, except that there genuinely was a feeling of something important going on. Obviously, there was no ruckus or drinking like you'd find in that atmosphere. There was food, guitars, and candles, all very young. I think Pope John Paul would have loved it. I feel blessed to have been able to participate.
Since then I've been recovering, as in sleeping. I think it would be amazing to be in the square at the end of April to see the white smoke go up. I don't know how easy that will be, since I can't exactly hang out for three days straight, but it would be cool.
Anyway, that's my story in the short form. Rome is a very special place to be right now. I'll have to show you my photos.