Even with layers of short- and long-sleeved shirts, a sweatshirt, and a heavy jacket, I was absolutely freezing. Italy is always flaunted as a Mediterranean paradise, especially Rome as it is in the southern portion of the country. Nonetheless, my school schedule and my mother’s work schedule dictated our travel dates: we began our plane journey the night of Christmas and, after delays due to snowy conditions, arrived in the Fiumicino airport three days later. We spent our first three days in Rome wandering through churches, churches, and more churches. Oh, we went to the Colosseum and the Forum Romanum (Roman Forum) in between all of the churches, too. (Even on that walk, we came upon the small church of San Pietro in Vincoli with Michelangelo’s famous statue of a horned Moses.) The highlight of this first leg of our pan-Italian sightseeing trip was, without a doubt, attending the New Year’s Eve Mass given by the Pope himself, Benedict XVI. I should point out that I am Jewish, and I have never attended any Catholic ceremonies, let alone an entire mass; as a result, I don’t think any other experience will ever compare. I sat in the great Basilica of St. Peter, a few hundred yards from the supposed resting place of the saint upon which the church and Catholicism’s foundations are planted, with thousands of priests, nuns, tourists, and true believers from dozens of different countries.
How did we get here? First, our Vatican exploration date was actually December 30. On that day, we got to St. Peter’s Square early enough to beat the long lines (around 8 a.m.) and roamed through the cavernous church while reading our guidebook, listening to free podcasts on my iPod (tip: download several different ones before you leave for your trip so you have them at hand without running around trying to find an Internet connection), and taking pictures of the myriad paintings, frescoes, statues, columns, and architectural details. Second, a friendly guard told us about the next day’s mass as a way to see the Pope. Be sure to ask several guards and employees for information because we were soon advised that tickets were necessary for entrance. It wasn’t until the night of the mass that we realized that tickets were not actually mandated for entrance…they were for SEATS! Yes, through determination and several broken English conversations, we were led down the center aisle to the scarce number of chairs set up for those who held these precious tickets. Those who did not hold tickets were welcomed into the Basilica but ushered to the sides.
We flipped through the special prayer booklets printed for the occasion and deposited on each seat. My mother kept announcing that she was most excited to see “the Pope’s hat.” (To her credit, his garb did not disappoint.) As for me, I was simply in awe of the scale and grandeur of this building constructed with the money from indulgences sold centuries ago and maintained by sheer faith, a faith in the presence and purity of the Christian religion and a faith in the people who dutifully make time in their lives to visit and appreciate this monument to humanity.
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