Last Wednesday, 48 Providence College students participated in one of Rome’s most meaningful spiritual activities: the Papal Audience. To judge by the numbers on the tickets, we joined 20,000 Catholic and non-Catholics at St. Peter’s Square, between Bernini’s grand 284 columns, under some 140 statues of Saints, and in front of the most significant building in Christendom. There they saw in person Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who in March 2013 became the 266th Pope, Francis I, the Bishop of Rome, the Sovereign of Vatican City, the Vicar of Christ on Earth.
Papal Audiences are the traditionally given each week on Wednesdays to provide an opportunity for the faithful to not only see the Holy Father, but also to receive the Papal Blessing from the direct successor of St. Peter. The day starts with the Pope taking a tour of those gathered in his iconic so-called ‘Pope Mobile’.
The Audience then begins with a short reading from the New Testament in a number of languages: English, French, German, Italian, and Pope Francis’ native language of Spanish. The Pope offers a greeting in each of these languages, either personally or through a translator, signaling out some of the larger groups in attendance. And finally, in those several languages, the Pope offers a brief teaching.
“I am not usually a morning person, but on the day of the Papal audience it was easy to be. I was immediately woken up to women in wedding dresses and people from all over the world quickly walking towards the Vatican. We all shared one thing in common, and that was our excitement. We were filled with anticipation and hope that we would be lucky enough to have the Pope pass by us. Our wish was more than granted. I’ve never felt like I understood a different language more than I did while listening to Pope Francis speak. I couldn’t interpret it, but I still felt like I knew what he was saying. It was an amazing experience and I can’t wait to go home and tell people about it.” –Jaime Warren
The first Jesuit Pope, and the first Pope from South America, Francis chose his name in homage to Saint Francis of Assisi. And like his namesake, Pope Francis focused his message upon the social teaching of the church. The message on Wednesday mainly concerned the nature of hope, or ‘speranza’. Where there is God’s love, there is always hope. And where there is hope, there is always the possibility of human redemption. Hope is what leads immigrants to search for a better life. And hope in our futures and our children’s futures is what should lead us to care for our natural environment. Hope is accordingly among our greatest gifts, which we should endeavor to cultivate among our neighbors throughout the world, with special concern for the poor and dispossessed.
Many of our students grabbed a prime place along the rail to view the Holy Father as he processed down a main aisle. Although his car did not stop, he did acknowledge several PC students as he was driven by, offering us the Sign of the Cross in blessing.
“Attending the Papal Audience was one of my most memorable experiences from my semester abroad thus far. Seeing Pope Francis ride through St. Peter’s square waving and smiling to people from all over the world was amazing! I loved that I was able to share this experience with other students from PC, it is truly something I will never forget!” — Kathryn Rosseel
Two students, Olivia Ferri and Michael Splann, even brought ‘Zucchetti’ to the Audience. These small hats worn by Cardinals and Popes are endearingly nicknamed such due to their alleged resemblance to a ‘zucca’ or pumpkin. The students had purchased them from none other than the famous “Ditta Annibale Gammarelli,” who have provided ecclesial clothing for Popes since Pope Pius VI in 1798 .
But with all the fun and excitement of this festival-like environment, we are reminded what it means to be Catholic. We are Providence College students and faculty, we are Friar Basketball fans, we are finance majors and history buffs and aspiring doctors and lawyers — we are a collection of individuals who work toward our individual goals and individual interests. But as Catholics, we are also members of a universal family: the Church. It is a church that knows no national borders and no divisions among those of different races, genders, or legal status: all are called to be united in the life of Christ. Joined by some 20,000 other human beings in this holy space — praying together in dozens of languages with Christians from dozens of countries — reminds of of who we are and what we really ought to be hopeful for.
Pope Francis’ message of ‘speranza’ is a hope for the peaceful unity of the entire human family.