If you couldn’t tell from my excited tweets, Facebook posts and videos, I saw the pope.
Well, I saw him in his helicopter leaving the Vatican on his final day, so that’s still seeing him, right?
But we’ll get to that.
We arrived in Rome on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. We weren’t sure what to do, so we strolled down to the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and looked at some ancient ruins from afar. The cool thing about Rome is that you can walk down the street, past souvenir shops selling Italia track jackets and gelato (sorry for referencing it so much) stands, and bam! You’re looking at ruins that were built BC.
We always seemed to have a hard time deciding where to eat, but we decided on the News Café because it seemed pretty cheap and had authentic Italian food (I promise these details are significant). Right after we ordered our food, I looked up at the TV screen in the news cafe and saw the news broadcast summary of the pope giving his last ever public appearance in the Vatican.
He had just finished speaking and we could’ve been there because we had no morning plans.
My heart sank to the bottom of my stomach.
Now, you may wonder how I didn’t know this was happening. In Italy, I was only able to use my iPhone when I was connected to wifi, which never happened. You have to pay for internet access in restaurants, and it was very spotty in every hostel we stayed in. I had hardly any access to Twitter or Facebook and wasn’t reading the news.
Nonetheless, I felt like I should’ve known. We had previously been told that the pope’s last day was Thursday, and I naively assumed he would come out and wave or make a speech when he was finished.
I really regretted missing this “once in a lifetime” opportunity and the regret would not leave from the pit in my stomach. I had just missed a major historical moment and now there was nothing I could do.
We had already ordered, so we ate our food as fast as possible and jumped on the metro to head to Vatican City just in case anything else happened.
The area had pretty much cleared out. All that remained were empty chairs from the 50,000 people who had tickets to sit and watch the address and desperate reporters looking for sources to interview about the speech.
A frantic BBC reporter ran up to us and asked us if we spoke English. If we had actually been there for the speech, we could’ve been on the BBC TV broadcast. However, I didn’t think it was a good idea to lie in the Vatican.
Being the journalism nerds we are, we stalked the broadcast stand to see if any TV celebrities came down from the platform. If we couldn’t see the pope, we were hoping to see Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck.
We were happy to have seen the aftermath of the speech, but the missed opportunity still stung a little. To overcome the disappointment we walked to the Spanish steps and Medici villa, which are part of Rome’s most famous piazza. We then walked to the Pantheon, which looked absolutely amazing at night. Raphael is actually buried inside the Pantheon, but it’s primarily significant because it was first built as an ancient Roman temple to the Gods.
Then we had one of the best meals of our trip. For just 15 euros, we got endless wine, bruschetta, pasta, pizza and dessert. We also made friends with our Italian waiters, who were very friendly!
Thursday. We were told that the pope was leaving the Vatican at 9 a.m. via helicopter, but as we know, news sources aren’t always correct.
Our Vatican tour was supposed to take two hours, but took us upwards of three. No matter what your religious beliefs are, it’s impossible not to appreciate the beauty that is inside of the Vatican museums. There are thousands of sculptures, busts, tapestries and paintings, all created by some of the world’s most famous artists. There are scenes documenting every stage of Jesus’ life, every historic moment in the bible (old and new testaments) and even mythological Gods and Goddesses whose stories contributed to the formation of Rome.
Once again, I spent the majority of my time craning my neck upwards. I took endless pictures and did my best to listen to our tour guide’s broken English as she explained every significant work in detail.
Once we finished, we toured St. Peter’s Basilica. We all made sure we were dressed appropriately because you are not allowed inside if your knees or shoulders are bare (but that wasn’t a problem given the weather we had). I got to see the famous inscription with all of the previous popes, the beautiful altar and even part of a service that was being conducted in Italian.
I also saw the some of the former pope’s shrines where their bodies are prominently displayed in glass cases. Masks cover their faces, but their hands are left folded on their chests, which means you can see the progress decay has made.
Suddenly, the security guards in the basilica started closing off entrances and exits. I assumed it was because it was almost 5 p.m. and the church was closing, but then I heard a helicopter.
It was the pope leaving the Vatican.
We sprinted outside and saw the helicopter circling around the main piazza. I assumed the pope was inside, and was surprised that the crowd outside St. Peter’s was so small.
The helicopter soon landed out of view. There were some protesters inside the Vatican and I think they wanted the pope out of view for security reasons. Soon the pope was in the air and the crowd began cheering. I think the video I took can explain the feeling more than any words can.
I knew history was happening in that moment and my “once in a lifetime” was redeemed. I was surrounded by people craning their necks to wave a final goodbye and by priests and nuns who had traveled from all over the world to bid farewell to the leader of their church. Many of them had tears in their eyes and crossed themselves continuously.
The coverage continued until the pope reached Castel Gandolfo, where he would make his final speech. He walked very slowly and deliberately with tiny steps out to the balcony, where he was greeted by a massive cheering crowd and also by cheers from the bystanders in the Vatican.
He looked incredibly tired and weak. We can assume that he’s in ill health, but the effects showed. Although he was giving up his position, he almost looked as though he’d given up on life. My heart broke for him.
A lot of protestors argue that other popes have served until the ends of their lives and that it’s Pope Benedict’s duty to stay until the end of his term. On the other hand, some argue that people do retire from their work once they have done their duties and that it’s responsible of the pope to recognize that he cannot do the job anymore.
Who am I to say what is right? As I watched him deliver his final address and wave his last goodbyes, I did feel an overpowering sadness. I already had goosebumps from being in the right place at the right time, but seeing the pope give his last public words was incredibly humbling. He stood there almost admitting defeat, but vowing to continue his pilgrimage.
Humans have limitations. Even the pope has weaknesses. And regardless of your faith, we’re all looking to do the best we can and overcome challenges. Sometimes the obstacles are just too great.
We continued our day in a haze of disbelief, all the while making wishes in the Trevi fountain and of course having more gelato.
Our last day in Rome was spent at the colosseum and Roman Forum ruins, which are just as spectacular in person as they are in pictures. I still have a hard time believing that ancient people walked amongst the rubble that now stands preserved by fences. Once again, I felt small. Who knows what relics will survive from our time period that our ancestors will look at for years to come?
I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to travel all around Italy for a week. Between all of the incredible gelato I ate, all of the ancient relics that reminded me of my place in the world and all of the emotions I felt while seeing the pope’s departure, I know the week is one I will never forget.
One last thought: I visited a lot of churches while in Italy, and as I mentioned before, it’s possible to appreciate them no matter what your faith is.
But I came to this conclusion, which is best summed in a line from Mumford and Sons’ “Ghosts That We Knew.”
I think that no matter what time period we live in, no matter if we sleep in a stone hut or a gigantic palace, we’re all looking for one thing:
“Hope in the darkness that (we) will see the light.”
Until next time,
Allison, the pope-spotter and gelato connoisseur