The best laid plans sometimes don’t work out. And once in a while that turns out to be for the best. Last week I was in Rome for a meeting of the Vatican Council on Art and Technology. The council ended on December 5. Since Pope Francis was scheduled to open the Holy Year on Tuesday, December 8 I decided to stay on a couple more days, a sacrifice I happily made.
Through my work with the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums I was able to secure some great tickets for front row seats and a special entrance permit so as to avoid all the waiting in line and the numerous security checks. At the appointed time we made our way to the assigned Vatican entrance. As we approached the Vatican it was obviously not business like usual. There were police cars and army vehicles everywhere. Field hospitals with numerous first aid workers were set-up around the Vatican perimeter. No-one could approach the Vatican without being checked numerous times. Police boats patrolled from the Tiber and army helicopters from the air. The irony that all these barriers were set-up as we were gathering to open a set of Holy Doors was not to be missed.
Getting to the assigned entrance was not an easy task. At every turn we encountered barricades and officers who were not to be persuaded to let us through. Only after much ambulating did we end up close to where we were to enter. Still, we could not get there for the thousands of people waiting to go through security. By now I was a little worried so I called my Vatican contact asking for advice. She apologized for the hassle and suggested we just wait in line and show our VIP tickets to security. “What tickets” I asked. “Oh no, had we not picked them up at the Porta Santa Anna the day before?” she replied. We had not.
At that very moment a “hospitality minister” asked us for our tickets. Since we had none we were told we would not be able to enter there. Moreover we were waiting in the line for the concelebrating bishops and priests and were to move immediately. Embarrassed we started to walk away as the gentle mist turned into veritable rain. Since the predictions were for a sunny morning we had no umbrellas to protect us from the rain and my increasing frustration.
“Strange who you run into in Rome” I heard someone say behind me. As I turned around I noticed it was Fr. Ubel, the rector of our Cathedral. He was in line with concelebrating priests. We spoke for a while before his line started to move and he disappeared in the crowd. I did not quite know what to do. Maybe it was time to give up and return to the hotel where we could watch the Mass on TV.
Knowing to tread carefully my travel companion offered to buy me a coffee. He gently nudged me not to give up and suggested that we enter with the many other people who had no tickets. Admittedly, I did not look forward to joining thousands of people waiting in line to squeeze through tiny security gates under the scrutinizing eye of Italian police. Nevertheless, we walked back to the Via della Conciliazione and joined the thousands of other pilgrims who either forgot to pick up their tickets or never got any.
It turned out to be ok. We recited the Rosary and we sang the Salve Regina as we waited. By the time we got to Saint Peter’s Square the liturgical procession had begun. We stood for the entire service and my eyes went back and forth between the giant screens and the actual celebration which took place in miniature form far away.
The opening of the Holy Doors happened at the end of Mass. Apart from the cardinals and a few select bishops who entered St. Peter’s Basilica with the pope all of us watched the opening of the Holy Doors on the giant screens around the square, including the people who I was sure had taken up my prime seat. Not that I was holding any grudge.
When Pope Francis opened the Holy Doors after reciting the prescribed prayers, a thunderous and sustained applause erupted through Saint Peter’s Square only to be followed by a profound silence as everyone saw Pope Francis pray in silence at the threshold of the Holy Door. He stood there for many moments steeped in prayer. Then he walked through the holy Door to more applause. Tears ran down my cheeks.
Having passed through the Holy Doors and walking with great vigor, his shepherd’s staff in hand Pope Francis then led a procession of cardinals and bishops to the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. This altar is erected above the tomb of the first among the apostles and the first pope, Peter. Usually the pope walks at the end of a procession. This time he led the procession. At the tomb of St. Peter he prayed for the fruitfulness of the Holy Year for the Church and all of humanity. Though I wish laypeople, women, men and children would have been part of this procession, seeing him lead the cardinals and bishops was a striking image of the strength and conviction with which Pope Francis is leading the church, without any sense of fear.
I never made it through the Holy Door. There simply were too many people and rather than first I was now last in line. As I watched cardinals and bishops, presidents and diplomats walk through the Holy Doors I found myself praying for the many people who experience the harsh reality of closed doors. Sometimes these closed doors can be literal doors – doors to homes, doors to work opportunities, doors to hospitals, even doors to churches. These can also be symbolic doors: obstacles such as war, famine, inequality which prevent people from accessing needed opportunities. And these can be spiritual and emotional barriers. There simply are too many closed doors in our world. And as time goes by more and more doors are being closed.
Maybe the shared human experience of opened and closed doors was the reason for the thunderous applause as Francis pushed open the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. In that very gesture he not only reminded us that Christ is the Door to Mercy. He also strongly affirmed that the doors of the Church are to be kept open to everyone rather than to a select few. And he invited all of us to open the doors of our countries, our cities, our homes and our hearts especially to those most in need. This is not an easy task, but it is one that must be embraced for the sake of the church and the well-being of all people.
Why celebrate a Holy Year of Mercy? Because we need it! We need it very much, indeed!