Post-Tour Day 1
After saying goodbye to Patricia and the remnants of our tour group, my traveling companion and I are on our own in Rome. The morning is warm and clear, perfect for outdoor Mass at St. Peter’s Square on Palm Sunday. Today is the beginning of Holy Week for Catholics, and commemorates Jesus’ triumphal march into Jerusalem before his crucifixion.
We descend the steps to the Metro station like old hands. The subway car is mostly full, even at the early hour, taken up by a group of young men in blazers and ties. We all head for the door at the Vatican stop. The young men step aside, allowing me to exit first. Their politeness convinces us that they must be students at a Jesuit high school. We are not exactly sure where to go when we get off, but we follow the students, and then a group of nuns dressed in habits, figuring they know where to go. People are carrying huge bundles of olives branches. We realize this is what the Italians wave instead of the palm fronds we are used to on Palm Sunday in the United States.
We pass through security at the gate to St. Peter’s Square, but since it is early, we do not wait long. The square is already teeming with people when we enter. Michelangelo’s dome is silhouetted against a flawless blue sky. Plastic folding chairs are set up in the square, and we find a seat. The crowd builds. It is difficult to capture the magnitude of the crowd on film from where we sit. Two giant screens show what is happening at the altar area, which is very little right now. The beautiful sunny day turns warm, and I can feel my face burn. Preliminaries begin: a dedication, prayers, singing practice. We wait an hour or two for the start of Mass. But we are at St. Peter’s Square! For Mass on Palm Sunday!
The procession begins: the Catholic Church in all its regalia is on display. We wave olive branches. We crane our necks to catch a glimpse of Papa Francesco. There he is! There he is behind hundreds of priests dressed in black and white, and a cadre of cardinals in bright red, the splendor and majesty of church hierarchy.
The Mass takes its familiar form–even in Italian we can follow along. Some small sections of the liturgy are spoken in other languages: English, Polish, Chinese. We watch Pope Francis on the big screen as he gives his homily in Italian. That evening, we look up his remarks in English. We discover that Coptic Christians have been killed in Egypt, and the Pope has requested our prayers.
After the homily, we are asked to be silent for a few moments of contemplation. My traveling companion and I have one of the eeriest experiences of our lives: being in a crowd of over 200,000 people in absolute silence. A shiver runs over my body.
“… one of the eeriest experiences of our lives: being in a crowd of over 200,000 people in absolute silence …”
We leave when Mass is over, but many others stay to be blessed by the Pope as he circles the Square in the Popemobile. On the walk back to the hotel, we purchase refrigerator magnets and bottle openers from souvenir stands along the Tiber. Streets near our hotel are mobbed with Palm Sunday strollers. The morning has been long, and we need refreshment.
We find Antica Enoteca on the street next to our hotel. This lovely old frescoed wine bar and restaurant has been open since 1842. Prosecco is our go-to lunch beverage, and we enjoy a glass here. The fried artichokes, salad, and pizza are delicious. Fortified, we return to the city.
We stroll the busy streets near our hotel, feeling the life of Rome. We search for the Keats-Shelley House, the museum dedicated to the English Romantic poets, near the Spanish Steps. The building is hardly recognizable, being entirely swathed in sheets while it is being renovated. We photograph the door. Rome has attracted many prominent writers over its long history. Keats drank coffee at the Antico Caffe Greco, right down the street from our hotel. The oldest café in Rome opened in 1760, and has served the likes of Byron, Ibsen, Goethe, Stendhal, Andersen, and other notable figures.
On overload, we retire from the crowd for quiet evening on our hotel patio.