It’s Sunday in Rome. The bells of numerous churches can be heard ringing in the new day. The bells of the nearby Papal Basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore send signals across the Esquilino hill. The basilica is built on the spot where the legend says that Our Lady asked for a church to be built in her honour. The site was marked by the outline of snow which fell on a summer’s day.
In the very brisk Roman morning we walked the short distance from our hotel to the basilica. This is the first of the four papal basilicas that we will visit, and also the first holy doors that we will pass through.
As we approach the holy doors, a sense of awe befalls the group. There isn’t anything too significant, in a worldly sense, about passing through doors. Yet as we cross the threshold between the world outside and the embrace of the church, our faith tells us that something special is happening.
It is as if, the arms of the forgiving father embracing the prodigal son, now reach out to embrace us in an extremely passionate way. The Father’s mercy is for all; no one is left out. The door closes on no one. This is the significance of the holy doors, opened in this extraordinary year of Jubilee. The love of God is thrown open for the world. All we must do is simply pass through into that love. This is mercy.
After Mass, we head towards the Vatican, the Eternal City. The Holy Father is due to appear at midday for his regular Sunday Angelus address. As our bus turns the corner of the Corso Emanuele, the mighty dome of St Peter’s Basilica rises in the distance. Hearts start beating faster as we near the goal of our pilgrimage. Walking towards the square down the Via del Conciliazione, the weariness of two weeks constant travel seems to dissipate. The crowd gathered in the square in anticipation of the arrival of the Pope generates a great sense of joy and excitement amongst our pilgrims. We have made it! The result of months of saving and preparation are now coming into full fruition. New Zealand is probably the furtherest you can get from Rome, and yet here we are.
Immediately though, we are recognised. An Argentine TV company approach us asking for our thoughts about Pope Francis. Of course we oblige. More people say hello, recognising the silver ferns that we carry. No flag debates here though. It feels quite good to have people come up and greet us with enthusiasm.
Then in a top floor window of the Apostolic Palace, a small figure dressed in white appears. He begins to speak and the unmistakable voice of the Holy Father rings out across the square. His voice is tender. Although the pilgrims cannot understand his words, they can hear in his voice his love for each of us, his care and concern for the flock that has been entrusted to him. It is a difficult thing to explain why a 15 minute speech draws upwards of twenty thousand people. Yet this happens every Sunday that the Pope is in Rome. There is no greater institution on earth than the papacy.