Personal Journey: Saints and angels in Vatican City

The author in St. Peter's Square a few days before the historic double canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, with St. Peter's Basilica in the background.
The author in St. Peter's Square a few days before the historic double canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, with St. Peter's Basilica in the background.
Posted: June 23, 2014

When I heard that Popes John Paul II and John XXIII would be canonized, I knew I'd be Rome-bound. I traveled to the Eternal City for John Paul's funeral in 2005 and his beatification in 2011, sleeping on the cobblestones to ensure entrance to St. Peter's Square. It worked.

This time I decided to travel with an organized group - understanding that I'd be on my own for the canonization, a non-ticketed event. Our group of 40 included a teacher, a musician, an ex-nun, a Korean couple married 50 years, and three priests: Father Matt, a high-energy West Point grad; Father Mike, blind since age 6; and Father Jose, a young Colombian priest serving in Jersey City, N.J. Ordinary people like myself embarking on an extraordinary journey.

We stopped in Florence to marvel at David, Michelangelo's marble masterpiece; and Assisi, where we toured the frescoed basilicas and the cave where St. Francis retreated to pray and meditate. As amazing as these wonders were, even more remarkable was Father Mike. Though blind, he didn't miss a thing. He "saw" everything through our eyes and his touch.

Soon it was arrivederci Assisi, ciao Roma. The group was split into different hotels. Ours was in the middle of a highway, Vatican City nowhere in sight. John, our guide, handled check-in as we commiserated about the hotel's unenviable location. John was gone a while. I went to see what the holdup was, only to learn our eight rooms had been canceled. The confirmation numbers were useless - there was absolutely no availability. Ugh! Finally, at 1 a.m., our indefatigable tour guide secured rooms at Hotel Gravina St. Pietro - a group of 16 had just canceled - located 800 meters from St. Peter's Square.

I hustled to St. Peter's before dawn on April 27 to wait with the hopeful hordes from around the world. At 5 a.m., I was pushed through a barricade and ran to the center of the square. Hours later, the history-making canonization began with heavenly choral music. Two living popes - Francis and Benedict XVI - were together at the altar as two previous pontiffs - John Paul II and John XXIII - were declared saints. Nine years and a few weeks ago to the day, I had stood in the same place, my voice united with thousands chanting: " Santo Subito" - "Sainthood Now!" Our pleas had been answered. We received a final blessing from Pope Francis amid shouts of " Viva il Papa."

Our group reconnected and shared canonization stories. Father Matt, Father Mike, and some others pulled an all-nighter to watch from a crammed street on the perimeter of St. Peter's Square. How Father Mike safely navigated through the crowds in the dark on the cobblestones may well be a miracle. They were treated to a post-canonization drive-by from Pope Francis in his popemobile. Others watched on giant screens in nearby churches. No matter how we witnessed it, all agreed it was the experience of a lifetime.

And this whirlwind trip reminded me not to be discouraged by bumps in the road. They could be blessings in disguise.


D.A. Gleason of Philadelphia wrote in 2011 about the beatification of John Paul II and in January about a mass yoga exercise in New York.


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