Richard Rotondi, KM (front row opposite, third from left) attends a general audience with Pope Francis.

Summary: Rick Rotondi, KM writes about his experience attending an audience in St. Peter’s Square, and for a brief moment, looking out upon the world from the same vantage point as Pope Francis. 


The Jubilee Year has so far been an exciting one. But today will certainly be its highlight. My friends and I are attending Pope Francis's general audience just days before Holy Week this year in St. Peter's Square.


We arrive as pilgrims and make our way through the first security checkpoint, then another, then another still. Swiss Guards, resplendent in their dress uniforms, examine our invitation and direct us higher.


We reach the landing area where in less than an hour the pope will speak. Papal ushers, or sediari, lead us to our seats.


Mine is better than I’d dared hope. When the Holy Father arrives to address the faithful, I will be directly to his left, about 20 feet from him, with no one in between.


I turn my head, and look out at St. Peter’s Square and beyond. For a brief moment on this Wednesday in March, I am seeing the world as the pope sees it.


* * *


First I see the crowds in the square, waiting for the pope to appear. The faithful are happy and boisterous, filled with the Holy Spirit and the joy of the Gospel. Some of the young people bang drums.


Days earlier I had walked St. Peter’s Square, and its massive scale seemed imposing and daunting. But now I see what its size is for: to hold tens of thousands of joyful pilgrims, to remind them in every stone and statue that here, generation after generation, Christ through his vicar continues to teach.


From up here the massive colonnades of the square seem warm and human. They are the arms of a mother, gathering her children, keeping them safe.


The pilgrims are from six continents. What other leader, I wonder, has a people gathered from the corners of the earth? The Roman emperors, who ruled here once, came close. But they are dead and buried. Peter remains.


The view from the landing area includes more than St. Peter’s Square. From here I can see outside it, too, past the security gates, into the Borgo district, down the broad Via della Conciliazione to the Tiber River and beyond.


Outside the gates are crowds of pilgrims barred from coming inside. They are the late arrivals, the ticketless, the luckless. They wait outside patiently, still wanting to be close.


Among them are the poor, largely immigrants, the flotsam and jetsam of a global economy. It is impossible to go far without encountering them, wand their appeal for help.


Some, especially the gypsies, beg insistently. Some slouch despondently. Others peddle trinkets or carvings or selfie sticks. I never see a single sale.


Beyond the pilgrims and the poor is Rome and its suburbs, about four million people. For them the general audience is not a highlight but a weekly occurrence. They carry on with their normal routines, working and shopping, not experiencing the excitement in the square, perhaps indifferent to it.


But there they are, visible to me from the landing from which the pope will make his address. The pope, I am sure, is not indifferent to them. The pope will be speaking to them too.


My view includes one other group: security forces. Inside the square the brightly colored Swiss Guard and sediari keep order. But outside the security is more intimidating. Police and carabinieri are a heavy presence. And at several locations soldiers carrying machine guns stand in front of military vehicles.


The soldiers are part of Italy’s Strade Sicure (“Safe Streets”) program. Their presence is a reaction to the terrorist attacks in Paris, and to Islamist threats made against the pope. They remind me there is indeed a cost of discipleship. The stakes are high, and real.


* * *


The pope arrives, and the crowd’s excitement knows no bounds.


Bishops welcome the pilgrims in many languages: Italian, Spanish, English, German, French, Arabic, Polish, and Portuguese.


The pope gives a short teaching in Italian from the Book of Jeremiah. Later I see it is about the consolation God provides in times of affliction and exile, and our responsibility to “open hearts and open doors” to exiles today.


But I don’t understand Italian. So I soak in the moment and relish being here with the pope during this Extraordinary Jubilee.


As I look over the square and the city beyond, I am not thinking of the words of Jeremiah. I am thinking of the words of our Lord to Jerusalem: “How many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings.”


These words, recorded by both Matthew and Luke, are known as the Lament Over Jerusalem. They voice the Lord’s desire to protect Jerusalem at its moment of judgment, and danger, a danger that would be realized with the razing of the city by the Emperor Titus in 70 AD.


Francis is the vicar of our Lord. He must feel this yearning, the Lord’s yearning, too.


This is the key to the Holy Year. This, I think, is the key to Francis’s papacy. He yearns to gather.


He yearns to gather the faithful and fumbling, the poor and  worldly, the credentialed and uncredentialed, the zealous and lukewarm.


He wants them all. He wants them in the maternal arms. He wants to open wide the door of mercy. And he wants all to go through it, before the judgment comes.


The Holy Father’s address ends, and my reverie with it. He blesses us, leaves the canopy and plunges into the crowd. For half an hour he moves through it, greeting pilgrims, speaking words of encouragement. Will he make his way to me?


He does. I have time to take his hand and kiss the Fisherman’s ring before he moves on.


But then the Holy Father stops. He turns back to me, and I kiss his ring again. “Thank you for the Jubilee Year, Holy Father,” I say to him.


He smiles, and what strikes me are his eyes, clear, brown, youthful. They radiate both warmth and intelligence, qualities not often combined in such high degree.


“Pray for me,” he says in English. “Don’t forget!”


I will pray for you, Holy Father. I will never forget.