Personal Journey: Momentous day in Eternal City

The writer, D.A. Gleason , in St. Peter's Square the day before the candelight vigil at Circus Maximus.
The writer, D.A. Gleason , in St. Peter's Square the day before the candelight vigil at Circus Maximus.

With cobblestones as their bed, throngs awaited Pope John Paul II's beatification.

Posted: August 07, 2011

It's my third visit to Rome, and the second time that the cobblestone streets of this ancient metropolis serve as my bed.

I'm not alone under the dark Roman sky. Thousands in sleeping bags, on cardboard, on thin blankets, transform the area along the Tiber River into a makeshift urban campground. But for many of us, sleep is elusive - not because of the uneven stones, but from ardent anticipation. At this moment, the Eternal City could be described as the "city that never sleeps."

Countless languages pierce the still night air. I meet people from Nigeria, Greece, Argentina, Cancun, Guam, India, Poland, San Francisco, and my hometown, Philadelphia. We're all compelled to descend on Rome despite there being no room at the inn. We've journeyed from every corner of the world to share in the beatification of Pope John Paul II.

As I lean against a barricade, I inhale the fraternal spirit pulsing through the throng. I experienced this same spirit the first time I slept on the streets of Rome - for Pope John Paul II's funeral in 2005. And I felt it hours earlier during a poignant pre-beatification vigil at Circus Maximus, an expansive field once the site of chariot races. It's now an entertainment venue noted for hosting large-scale events such as Live 8 Rome and Italy's 2006 World Cup victory celebration.

On the eve of John Paul II's beatification, I was one of nearly 200,000 people gathered at Circus Maximus. The event featured personal testimony from Krakow's Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz and former Vatican press liaison JoaquĆ­n Navarro-Valls, two of John Paul II's longtime confidants. They spoke about the pontiff's intense prayer life, his courage in the face of suffering, and his unwavering defense of human dignity - a man virtuous, holy, and human, like all saints.

Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, a French nun whose cure from Parkinson's disease became the recognized miracle that set John Paul II on the path to sainthood, told of her extraordinary healing.

Jumbotrons featured live satellite feeds from Krakow, Mexico City, Lebanon, Tanzania, and Fatima, where thousands prayed in unison with all of us in Rome. It was truly a moment without borders.

I haven't slept a wink. It's 5:30 a.m. as I enter St. Peter's Square for the beatification. Gian Lorenzo Bernini's marble columns are adorned with larger-than-life banners chronicling John Paul II's legacy. His presence suffuses the square.

The hours pass swiftly. I turn toward a flurry of activity to see Pope Benedict XVI blessing the crowd from his Popemobile en route to the altar. An elaborate tapestry depicting Pope John Paul II is dramatically unveiled at St. Peter's Basilica to a thunderclap of applause, tears, and flag-waving.

Pope John Paul II, a humble Pole, now Blessed John Paul II. I feel blessed to be part of this momentous occasion. And I realize that, years from now, when Blessed John Paul II becomes Saint John Paul II, I'll be spending another night on the streets of Rome. I've got my sleeping bag ready.


D.A. Gleason lives in the East Falls section of Philadelphia.

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