Poland’s flag is seen as pilgrims wait on Via della Conciliazione outside St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican April 26, the eve of the canonization of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II. CNS photo/Paul Haring.

Enduring huge crowds worth it for pilgrims

By  Laura Ieraci, Catholic Register Special
  • April 30, 2014

ROME - Getting into St. Peter’s Square for the canonization Mass of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II was not for the faint of heart.

Warren Fernandes of St. Benedict’s parish in Etobicoke, Ont., was one of the many thousands to brave surging crowds early Sunday morning and make it into the square. Many thousands of the nearly 800,000 pilgrims in Rome had to watch the celebration on big screens along adjoining streets.

“Everyone was tired, barely anyone slept, anxiously awaiting the next push,” Fernandes said. “We all had heavy backpacks and some were in pain.”

At about 10 p.m. on Saturday night, Fernandes and some friends joined thousands of other pilgrims in front of one specific gate, which police had designated as a first access to the square. Once there, they set up a camp in a smelly alley.

“The crowds were enormous and varied in age,” said the 30-year-old Catholic youth leader. The first gate opened after midnight. “And then the stampede began to get to the final gate into St. Peter’s Square.”

At that stage, he said, the crowd was so tight he was unable to extend his arms.

“We stood in a confined space and progressively moved (forward) in increments throughout the night,” he said. “Everyone seemed to be using some type of tactic to push forward, whether it be locking arms together, forming walls or circles.”

The sleepless throng kept pushing forward regardless of police efforts to control the pushing. Fernandes finally got into the square at 6 a.m., “which was a challenging final push,” he said.

“What quite impressed me was the gratitude of Catholics, picking people up if they fell down, handing food and water to people they didn’t even know, the police and medical staff who came around… and tended to the sick and exhausted,” he said.

By the time he reached his seat, an exhausted, aching Fernandes was rewarded with a spot in the first row of a section near the obelisk in the centre of the square. He said that “made everything we had endured through the night worthwhile.”

“We had the best spot you could have asked for,” he said.

Canadian pilgrims were drawn to Rome for various reasons. When Kevin Malcolm, 45, of Toronto was diagnosed with cancer, he vowed “to himself and to God” that if he recovered he would make a pilgrimage to the Vatican and to Rome.

“It just so happens, this pilgrimage fell into my lap almost as soon as I got the all clear,” said Malcolm, part of a small group of Toronto-area pilgrims associated with the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

“John Paul II was a very important figure in my life as a young Catholic man,” Malcolm said. “I also have deep respect for John XXIII and the changes that were made before I was born.”

Oriana Bertucci, 30, who heads the Ryerson Catholic Chaplaincy in Toronto, and her friend Patricia Barry, a youth-group volunteer at St. Michael’s Cathedral, wanted to be part of history.

“This is an historic event, to have two popes canonized,” Bertucci said. “I doubt I’m ever going to see that again in my lifetime. The opportunity to be here is just awesome.”

Despite the rough sleeping conditions, by 7 a.m. pilgrims along the Via della Conciliazione — the road leading into St. Peter’s Basilica — were playing tambourines and chanting “Viva il papa!” Many waved flags. Others prayed the rosary. A few, however, weakened by their overnight effort, collapsed and were rescued by ambulance crews.

Large screens were positioned all along that main road, allowing pilgrims to follow the proceedings. They cheered when the banners of the two new saints hanging on the façade of St Peter’s Basilica were projected onto the screens.

The boisterous crowd settled into a quiet and prayerful spirit as the litany of saints began at about 9:45 a.m. But they roared in an extended applause when, during the canonization rite, in Latin Pope Francis read the names of the two new saints.

At the end of the Mass, Pope Francis added a little more sweetness to the experience of those along the Via della Conciliazione by driving past them in the popemobile and greeting them warmly.

(With files from Canadian Catholic News)

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