In 2001, I found myself in Italy for a program in Bologna, which was sponsored by my law school. I knew I would not leave Italy without attending Mass at least once at St. Peter's Basilica, so I arose in the pre-dawn hours to take a train to Rome, about a 3-hour journey.
If anyone has had the good fortune of being in Rome at this time of the year, you know how hot it can be - add to that the un-air-conditioned subway, which this day - the Feast of Corpus Christi - was packed full with football fans off to attend a match, and I was somewhat wilted by the time I arrived at St. Peter's Square.
But . . . that did nothing to take away the rush of emotion I felt when I stepped into the piazza. This was it. Ground Zero. I was HOME. I stood there and started crying, and when I looked around self-consciously, I saw others doing that too. I said a prayer of thanksgiving to thank God for what He allowed.
I then noticed that preparations were underway for what would a papal Mass in the square, without a doubt. I approached a guard and asked what was taking place. mercifully, he spoke enough English to tell me that the Pope that day was canonizing five new saints. Alas, he said, tickets were required to be able to attend the Mass or, at the very least, get a seat. And none were to be had.
Forgive me, Holy Father, but I could not let the opportunity pass. I waited until the throng of pilgrims who had tickets started coming in. A large group of them was making their way past one entrance gate, overwhelming the young guard there, so I slipped among them and made my way in. You're crashing a papal Mass, I said to myself, and turned to one of the pilgrims. It turned out to be a group of Lebanese Maronites, as one new saint was of their people - St. Rafqa, a Maronite nun - and In French I explained what I had just done. They laughed and graciously invited me to sit with them, saying not all of their group would be there and a seat was available. Thank you, St. Rafqa, for whatever invention you helped arrange.
And what a Mass! The sheer joy that swept through the crowd when a very frail - but very much loved - Pope John Paul II processed out from the great doors of the basilica. In 2001, Parkinson's had robbed him well of his vitality, yet he still delivered a lengthy sermon in Italian, French, and English! The sun beat down and I was forced at one point to take my jacket - which, blessedly, was white - and put together a sort of burqa atop my head to reflect back the heat of the day. Giant screens sat on either side of the piazza to provide close-ups of the altar. And the singing and responses of the gathered were thunderous, given our numbers. I do not know how many people St. Peter's Square holds, but it must have been near to 100,000.
Such are memories that last a lifetime. I knew God had given me a great gift that Feast of Corpus Christi and I sat in my church this morning, remembering that day . . . and also realizing the enormous gift that He has given us in His Body and His Blood.
Happy Feast of Corpus Christi!