Pilgrims rise early to get spot to welcome Pope Francis
(CNS photos/Paul Haring)
By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Michael Vazquez of Windermere, Fla., woke up at 4:30 a.m. just to be sure he and his friends got to St. Peter's Square on time for the inauguration of Pope Francis.
When the gates opened, he was surprised at how fast everyone ran to stake out their spots, either close to the front or along a fence, as he was, to see the pope as he passed by.
Vazquez, a junior at England's Oxford University visiting Rome on a semester break, said the pope has a "refreshing, simple style" that appeals to young people.
His friend, Shaun Bailham, studying for his master's degree at Oxford, said Pope Francis had shown a unique way of reaching out to people, but he also said he was "fond of Pope Benedict" and was waiting to see what the new pope would do.
In the meantime, while the church was still getting to know the new pope, he said: "We should buckle our seat belts and enjoy the ride."
The two were among more than 150,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square under a blue sky and sunshine after days of rain to greet Pope Francis at his inaugural Mass March 19.
The crowd, some of whom had been waiting in line for hours before the square opened at 7 a.m. for the 9:30 a.m. Mass, came not only to see their new pope but to be part of history. Others saw the moment as the beginning of a new inspiration in the church.
"We came to see the pope," said a nun who identified herself as Sister Juby, a Sister of St. Ann based in Rome.
She quickly added that the experience of attending the pope's inaugural Mass with such a large crowd was more than just something historic or exciting.
"This is just the beginning. Today we have euphoria, but this is not like going to a movie or a soccer match where we just go home when it's over," Sister Juby said. She said the pontificate of Pope Francis will be the start of a new challenge for Catholics, who should show their affection by following "what he asks of us."
"Just as God has given him a grace, he will give all of us a grace too," she added.
Many in the crowd, holding aloft cameras, banners and flags from different countries, cheered the pope's arrival at the square. Some ran from side to side in the square's center, where there was still some empty space, to catch a glimpse of him in the popemobile prior to the start of Mass.
When he passed, they cheered, waved and took a lot of pictures.
Prior to Mass they waited in almost quiet anticipation. There was none of the dancing and singing in the square that took place prior to his March 17 Angelus. Many in the crowd just talked with one another or tried to locate friends and family members in the square by cellphone. Almost everyone, it seemed, took pictures. Some placed towels, blankets and even trash bags on the cobblestones to sit; a few had portable chairs. Many prayed quietly, fingering rosaries or reading prayer books.
"I'm happy to see the pope with my own eyes," said Sister Grace Rayola, a Sister of the Sacred Heart of Ragusa, Sicily, who described the Mass as a "great, joyous day for the whole world, and not just for Catholics."
Father Philip Massawe, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit based in Rome, said he "came to be part of history."
He said he felt the church had been given "new impetus and new inspiration" with Pope Francis, whom he described as a "pastor who wants to be close to his flock and walk with his flock," helping the church minister to the poor.
The Zimbabwean priest said he was afraid he would not get into the square when he saw the streets were packed early in the morning.
The crowd size did not surprise him, though.
"There is a lot of enthusiasm for the pope," he said. "We are waiting for things to happen. We all want to be here."
Augustin Mulia, a first-year seminarian from Congo studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, had a similar reaction.
"Today is a big event in the church and for the Diocese of Rome and the rest of the world. We expect the pope to bring new life in the church," he said.
Mulia, who held an umbrella, just in case it rained, also noted that he did not expect a sunny day.
"For that, we thank our Creator," he added.