Vatican City

Seeing the pope in the Vatican

“Are we there yet?” I complained. My foot started to ache, so I hopped on one foot. We were visiting the Vatican. The past hour was a long slog in the heat of Rome. We had seen Nero’s palace and some statues on the way, but the absence of breaks was slowly deteriorating my stamina. 

 I think that it would’ve taken a much shorter time if we didn’t have the stroller with us; the stroller was very hard to carry up and down road crossings, which stole valuable resting time. However, I stopped my complaints when we reached a bridge. It was clear from the influx of tourists, and from the walls that surrounded the bridge, that we had finally arrived at the smallest nation in the world. In a way, crossing the bridge felt like crossing just a bridge, but in another way, it felt like entering another dimension. Here, everything would be perfect and everyone would be kind in the name of religion. Or so I thought. It turned out that the tourists there attracted the thieves of Trevi Fountain, and they weren’t Catholic. I wasn’t Catholic, but I wasn’t a thief. They were thieves.

“Help!” an old lady exclaimed in horror, which startled all the people surrounding her. I turned to see what had happened, but I didn’t see anything. 

“Look over there!” I saw a man with a lady’s bag. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do anything about it; the person might have been armed, and he was running very quickly. There were armed people nearby, however, and this was when I thought to look around. First, I saw the Swiss guard, who wore colorful clothes, armed with bayonets. They were mostly busy taking photos with tourists. Then I looked around, and once I stopped to look at the basilica, I was at loss for words. The main part of the basilica was surrounded by two symmetric entrance ways with marble roofs, and Corinthian columns supporting it. It led to a basilica larger and grander than any that I had seen before. It’s design was similar to the design of the Reichstag in Germany, excluding the modern top that was replaced with an eroded stone roof. The size of the basilica was deceiving. From afar, it looked almost insignificant when compared with the more modern buildings in view just behind us, but that was because of the huge square that was a runway, a podium for the real trophy. Now that we neared the basilica (we had to take breaks while doing it because of the sheer size of the building, and because my mom insisted on taking photos every ten feet), we saw the real power, the real grandeur of the building. The castles that I had previously compared this building to would look like ants in front of it. The only building that I thought was a just comparison to the St. Peter’s Basilica was the Capitol building, in Washington D.C, and since we live in the D.C suburbs, I know the size of the Capitol. 

“What are you waiting for?” My dad asked. “We should get inside the Basilica!”

“I need to get some more pictures,” said my mom. She beckoned us to move left, while she stood at uncomfortable angles, all to capture one building in an angle without that many people.

“Can we go?” I asked. I was getting very tired, and the Basilica was sure to have a bench; all churches had benches. 

“Wait!!” my mom said. “I still haven’t gotten the long exposure shot!” It turned out that the long exposure shot wouldn’t work because of the constantly moving crowds, so instead she gave in, but not before taking about ten more pictures of the details on the columns. 

I was hyped up to see the inside of the building. I was even ready for the torrent of pictures that would come after we entered the basilica. I imagined paintings everywhere, marble and stone statues, and maybe something special. After all, the pope resided there. 

That was going to have to wait, however. Before we took a step into papal residence, or posed for a single photo, we needed to get a mandatory security check. I should have known. They had the same procedures everywhere. But I set aside my thoughts, and got ready for the check. We put all of our things into a conveyor belt, which led to an X-Ray. I was looking forward to meeting a Swiss Guard member on the way there, but it turned out that the Swiss Guard only guarded the entrances, and didn’t do the security. That made sense. According to a sign above me, there were only 135 guards. I thought again. That was 13.5% of the nation’s population (the Vatican has a population of about one thousand). That didn’t matter, though, because we were past the security check, and now we were being asked to stow our stroller somewhere separate (this was another standard security check). My dad groaned. No matter how slow the stroller was, my sister walking was ten times slower. We stowed our stroller away, and we were finally able to enter St. Peter’s Basilica.

I didn’t think I would be able to be more shocked than I was earlier in the day, but yet again, I was wrong. Whatever I thought was going to be in the Basilica was there, but ten times fancier. The statues weren’t just marble, as I thought I saw a few made of silver. The scattered paintings that I expected weren’t just scattered. They were everywhere. The marble columns that I saw outside were even more ornate, this time with inscriptions on them, and with gold at the top. Everywhere I looked, there was a sight to behold (even outside, as the crowd was definitely a sight). One thing was missing, however. In the whole hour we spent looking around the Basilica, I didn’t see any bishop, cardinal, pope, or even priest. I blame this on the crowd (some of the things that I wanted to see weren’t visible, so I sat on my dad’s shoulders). My dad, who knew a lot more about Catholicism than I did, pointed some things out to me.

“Do you know what that is?” my father quizzed. I followed his gaze, and there was something that looked like three wooden boxes with doors on them.

“Somewhere with benches?”I asked hopefully. I had no real guesses, so this was the best I could do. 

“No!” my dad said. “This is where people go to apologize for things that they did wrong.”

“Oh,” I said sadly. I was really hoping that there were some benches nearby. 

There was also another thing missing from the basilica. The cross with the dead Jesus on it; it was there at least once in every other church that I’d ever visited. Then I noticed that the gold speck that I assumed was solid gold was actually an orb with the cross on it. The orb looked like it was made of gold. The cross with the dead Jesus on it didn’t. It was a sight to behold in both cases.

I looked back into the ceiling. The paintings showed a lot of things I didn’t know about. I decided to remember what the paintings looked like until I got back home (Spoiler Alert: I didn’t), so I could do some research on them. 

It was annoying, not knowing about my surroundings. If we were in the Roman area, I’d know everything there. If we were in the old town, I wouldn’t, but looking at the statues wouldn’t really use brainpower, so it didn’t matter. In the Basilica, the paintings told a story in a language that I didn’t understand. Ignorance may be bliss in some situations, but here, it led to frustration.

But then I remembered, I had a good plan B! If I didn’t know enough about a subject, I could eavesdrop on a tour group…until I remembered that there weren’t any tour groups in the Basilica. It wouldn’t help, anyways, as the crowd moved as if it were on a conveyor belt (They actually had to install a conveyor belt in Mexico to get people going in one church that we went to, but that’s a completely different story). I had no way of learning anything new, so I decided that the best course of action was to stick to things that I already knew. 

“Come here!” My mom exclaimed. Well, I thought, if Plan B didn’t work, I could always follow Plan C: Go with the flow. 

“What is it?” I asked, hoping that it wasn’t another photoshoot.

“There is an exhibition here with the bodies of previous popes!” I don’t know if I was supposed to be excited because of that, but I was. There was bound to be some information about previous popes if this was an exhibit about them. 

“Ok! Let’s go!” I replied enthusiastically. Another plus about going to the tombs was there wouldn’t be any opportunities for any more constant photoshoots. They were tombs. You cannot take photos of tombs. My mom proved me wrong about that.

We entered another huge crowd, waited for another ten minutes, and finally reached the dungeon of the basilica. Or at least that’s how it felt like. The bottom part of the basilica was cold, damp, and unwelcoming. Made out of stone, it felt like the halloween graveyard, which so often decorates houses during the times nearing halloween, the only difference being that these unwelcoming slabs of rock were indoors and lit up. The good thing was that my mom did give up on taking photos after she noticed that all of the tombs were the same, but she found a way around that.

“Come here! Let’s take a photo with the sign!” My mom was quite fond of taking photos of signs, so we could read the signs later. The only problem was that we almost never got to the reading-the-signs-again part of the process. I obliged, and after a few more photoshoots, my mom seemed to acknowledge that there was no opportunity to take photos here, so she read the boards herself. There were quite a lot of these boards, since they were biographies of the most important popes, but we just skimmed through them. The trip through the dungeon was a lot less scary than I anticipated, and a lot more sign reading was included in the process. However, the next thing that we did was almost as memorable as seeing the ornate golden columns of the basilica itself. We exited the building and went into a courtyard that I hadn’t noticed before. Connected to it were two features: the exit, and a few stairs that mysteriously led to a wall. However, I soon noticed that I was very thirsty from all of the walking I had done.

“Can I please have some water?” I asked. 

“We don’t have any more,” my mom replied, looking at the empty water bottle.

Rome, however, is known for having drinkable water throughout the city, and this is because of the fresh springs near it that supply Rome’s water. We could see people filling their own water bottles in a fountain nearby, and some people were washing their hands. The water there was definitely safe, so we filled the bottle up, and sure enough, I was rewarded with reviving water. 

“What should we do next?” I asked. However, that question was cut short when I looked  at the sign that explained those mysterious stairs with people that I had mentioned before. It said that we could climb to the top of the basilica for a few euros, or at an extra price if you took the elevator. 

“I know,” I said, answering myself. “We should go to the top of the basilica!”

My dad, however, was a little more skeptical. 

“Do you have energy?” He questioned. “And what will Arianna do?” Arianna was my little sister. Those were good questions, I thought. 

“Yes, I do,” I replied after a little rest. “Can we two go ourselves if Arianna can’t come?” I asked. 

He discussed this with my mom for a solid five minutes, but after that, the answer was yes! I could go up the basilica, and see the square from afar. The line, however, was rather long, so the beginning of the trek did take a while. We entered the basilica, but couldn’t see where we actually were. The stairs swirled and twirled around the center, until we got our first view. 

“Wow,” I remarked, completely astonished. 

My dad started taking some photos while I was saying this, which proved to be difficult, because we were in the dome of the basilica. We could see the paintings above us, and the golden statue below us. The building didn’t look as huge from this godlike angle, but I knew the opposite was true. We could only see a fraction of the basilica, so it looked smaller, but it was still as impressive. We spent about ten minutes just sitting there, enjoying the view, and snapping some more pictures for my mom’s benefit (so she could see them later). We then left the old stairs and climbed towards the top. 

“These stairs are getting really steep,”I remarked. It was true. They were by now very steep and narrow, and people were starting to slow down. This led to a type of traffic jam where everyone was trying to get to the end, but were all unable to do so because of blockage. It became quite slow, and caused a little trouble.

After a few long minutes of waiting for people to climb the stairs, we reached the roof of the building. I almost grimaced when I saw it. Made of odious concrete, and in construction, the building looked half built, and statues roof in the wrong places. Even though it was beautiful in a way, it didn’t fit in. But I realized how the basilica wasn’t just a relic from the past. It was still a living structure that would mold according to history. We just stopped there and looked out for a few moments, and saw the statues. 

“We should take a picture,” said my dad. We snapped a few photos, and I examined the area a little more. 

It turned out that there wasn’t anything else to see, but the image of the concrete stayed in my mind, and whenever I think about cathedrals, I know there is more to them than just the first level. 

We continued on our ascent, and there wasn’t much else to note from there on, because we were climbing metal stairs outdoors, which was a very sturdy way of traveling. We reached the top, and I was out of breath, not out of tiredness, but by the magnificent view in front of me.

Ever seen a single photo, gone to somewhere, and seen it with your own eyes? I hadn’t, but on that very day, and the day after that, I did. I saw a whole nation from the high perch that I was standing on, but I also could clearly see the picture St. Peter’s square that is so often used as the photo of the nation. It was incredible, knowing that a photo that I thought was only accessible by drones, was visible with my very own eyes, and just stopped there for a minute, and looked. Until-

“Can you move a little to the side?” My dad asked. “Then I can take a good picture.” My dad wasn’t as much of a photo-fanatic as my mom, and I thought that the pictures might have come out much better if my mom was there, but I moved, and then took a few pictures of my own using my dad’s iPhone. They weren’t perfect, because I didn’t have enough space to capture my mind, but it was good enough for then. It wouldn’t matter anyway. The photo already was stuck in my mind twice, once from the photo, and once from my memory.  

From then, we saw no purpose in staying up, so we repeated the journey, which took a solid thirty minutes, and I sat down on a stone ledge that somewhat resembled a chair. My leg was completely worn out, and I couldn’t think of anything but: My legs really hurt, and they did. 

“I’m hungry,” I groaned silently. “Is there anything to eat?” 

My mom came to the rescue and said, “Yes, I brought some couscous for us to eat.”

I was really happy because of that. When we were in Strasbourg, France, we ate the best couscous I’d ever tasted. I realized that since couscous was a Middle Eastern food, and that there were many immigrants from those countries in Europe. I put two and two together and concluded that the couscous was probably of a similar quality all around western Europe because of that. Therefore, I had high expectations for the couscous. It met my expectations. I learned that just because you’re in a certain place doesn’t mean that you have to eat food from there. I personally enjoyed Italian couscous more than Italian Pizza, and pizza is the epitome of Italian gastronomic tourism.

We decided to get some more couscous for the next day, and we left the St. Peter’s basilica, feeling satisfied with our discoveries(My mom entered the square while looking at our pictures). 

“We need to wake up early tomorrow,” my dad said. It was the day after a long visit to San Marino. “because there will be a big line to see the pope, and if we have any chance to get a view, it will be because we came early.” 

I thought my dad was exaggerating a little bit, but sure enough, the very next day I was woken up. 

“Yes??” I said. It was 6:00. 

“You should’ve woken up an hour ago!” my dad said “The crowd will be huge by the time we get there!” 

Again, I thought he might have been exaggerating, but I was proven wrong; there were at least 25 people ahead of us, and ahead of us were hundreds and hundreds of chairs. It looked like there could be a sea of them, as they almost completely covered St. Peter’s square.. My dad showed us all the slip of paper needed to get in, and we waited. In fact, we waited for a while. Two hours to be exact. The gates opened at 9:00 AM, and that wasn’t even when the ceremony (or whatever it was) started. During that time, my mom, and dad checked their phones. Even my sister got some screen time-when she was awake, she got to suck on her lollipop and watch nursery rhymes. All I did was eating Skittles, and getting bored. We all got bored. The initial clump of 25 became a line of hundreds. Hundreds. I suddenly saw why my dad wanted us to rest well the previous day. 

Before the gates opened, my dad told me to reserve a seat in the front near an edge. I thought the middle was the best place to see the pope, but my dad proved me wrong later. I ran as fast as I could, saved the seat, and waited for a few awkward minutes. The best seats were in the upper right corner of the setup, but the first hundred seats were reserved for bishops (and cardinals). Again, I waited, now with my family, who arrived a few minutes after I did (I had no regard for manners and weaved through the crowd). Again, we waited for a few more minutes, until some people in fancy dresses (bishops, cardinals, Swiss guard…ect.) came out and were announced by a person who I couldn’t see. In fact, most of the action was invisible, and the only reason I could see anything was our prominent position in line, just as my dad prophesied. The ceremony was starting, and we couldn’t miss anything. 

The beginning was a few verses from the Bible, which I wished I understood, but after  thirty minutes of verses and introductions in Latin, I was really wishing for all of this to end, but the spare time allowed me to see the diversity of the group. I could see bishops from everywhere from America to Argentina to India. The diversity of the church was amazing, and seeing so many bishops in one place was a unique and unforgettable experience. Maybe that’s why seeing the pope was worth it, because the rest of the ceremony wasn’t. 

After the incomprehensible prayers, the pope got into his car, and the crowd tensed. The ground appeared taller just from the influx of people leaning or standing just to get a proper view. Needless to say, once the pope got out, the chaos started. People started talking, and getting their cameras out, and I went with the mood. We all took pictures as the pope went around and around and around, kissing babies, and waving. And then it was over. Just like that, the pope went inside, people dispersed, and we had to take the long journey back. We had spent hours of valuable time waiting for a man to drive in circles. I learned a lesson. If something fails to inspire value or inspiration for you, it probably isn’t worthwhile. 

We left, my parents happy (they thought the pope waved/looked at us), and I, slightly dismayed. We had done what we intended to do for the day, and the time was already 2:00. We were all very tired from standing, so I didn’t even have the necessary energy to go back home. We got on a subway in Rome, the first and only time we used public transport there, and arrived near home, where we rested. 

Tips:

  • To see the Pope, go to the Bishop’s Office for United States Visitors to the Vatican, and get the tickets. To see when the pope is at the Vatican, look here.
  • If you don’t want to walk from Rome to the Vatican, you can always use the metro. 
St. Peter's square filled with chairs for the pope's visit.
A sculpture of one of the popes

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