On a Sunday morning, I stood in a crowd of tens of thousands, damp and entranced, letting both the rain and the reality of the moment hit me. There I was, celebrating Easter Mass at the Vatican, an experience many only dream of, and one I’d stumbled into quite accidentally.
It takes a lot to make a cradle-Catholic forget the date of Easter Sunday. I was 20 years old, and very far from home. I left my life at the University of Southern California to study abroad in London for a semester. My days in England consisted of early morning classes, long hours at school, and a thrilling amount of independence. With all these exhilarating and disorienting changes, the holiday completely slipped my mind.
A friend agreed to visit Italy with me after classes ended. Stoked, I threw myself into planning every detail. But when I tried to book our hostel, I found almost nothing available. Odd. I had no problem finding accommodations for other trips.
“I guess everybody’s going to Rome that weekend,” I told my friend. I flipped open my calendar and froze. We landed in Rome on Saturday, the 15th. Easter was the next day.
How did I miss that? I thought. The city will be crazy.
At first I grumbled, annoyed. This was my first visit to Italy – likely my only visit – and now I’d have to fight the huge influx of people coming for the holiday. I worried about finding lodging, fighting crowds, and having my trip ruined.
Then I took a moment to really think about this opportunity. I would be in one of Catholicism’s holiest cities on our most important holiday. Attending Mass at the Vatican seemed impossible – surely that would require months of pre-planning – but I read online that Pope Francis would come out to offer a blessing. I knew I couldn’t miss that. Inspired, I renewed my search for lodging. Then almost miraculously, a hostel, both affordable and available, popped up. I booked it, and we were ready to go.
We arrived in Rome on Saturday, and woke early Sunday morning. Knowing countless others would be vying for a chance to enter the city, we dressed in a hurry.
I quickly realized I had no church-appropriate clothes with me, only a selection of shorts and t-shirts. As we approached the Vatican, I noticed everyone else was wearing pants or long skirts that fell past their knees. The Vatican is a holy place, not a tourist trap. I should have known better. A quick search online warned that Vatican City guards turned away people who weren’t dressed respectfully. I panicked. Hundreds of people already jammed the streets – would we make it in?
Thankfully, a street vendor had set up nearby, selling a variety of long, brightly colored pants. I nearly cried with relief. I quickly purchased a pair of ABBA-esque blue and white pants – modest enough to guarantee entrance – and tugged them over my shorts. It was the first of many moments of gratitude that day.
St. Peter’s Basilica
After making it through the Gate of St. Pellegrino, and the subsequent metal detectors, we entered St. Peter’s Square. We stopped, overwhelmed. It was beautiful – the circle of statues above us, St. Peter’s Basilica rising up before us. The air thrummed with excitement, anticipation, and celebration. Suddenly, a security guard shuffled us forward into Straight Square, closer to the Basilica. We couldn’t believe our luck at securing such a close spot. Excitedly, we awaited the Pope’s blessing.
Finally, out came Pope Francis. As if welcoming a rock star, the crowd gave a deafening cheer. The Pope raised his hands, rendering the crowd silent. Then, over the loudspeakers, his voice boomed: “BUONA PASQUA!”
He continued in Italian, with what I assumed was the promised blessing. But then he didn’t stop. He kept going, and those who spoke Italian responded with what sounded like responsorial psalms. That’s when I realized, we weren’t just attending a papal audience… we were attending an Easter Mass, led by Pope Francis himself!
I found the experience to be strange, yet comforting. Although I didn’t understand the words, I could follow along with the familiar structure of the Mass. It began raining lightly, but nobody noticed.
At the end of Mass, the guards cleared a path through the square.
“What are they doing?” I asked aloud.
A woman turned and informed me in a heavy German accent, “Now the Pope drives through the crowd in a car.” I laughed. “No,” she assured me, “I’m serious.”
Moments later, Pope Francis zipped through the crowd in the appropriately dubbed “Popemobile.” He zoomed by smiling and waving, and the crowd went wild.
Nothing could dampen our spirits that day – not the rain, not the crowds. People turned their faces up towards the sky, grateful for a respite from the heat. All were calm and united, and hearing thousands of strangers exchange “Peace be with you,” in hundreds of languages is a memory that will stay with me forever. And although the Sistine Chapel was closed for Easter – preventing me from seeing Michelangelo’s famous paintings – I received something far better: an overwhelming sense of community. A realization that I’m a part of something bigger than myself. A chance to say thank you.
Too often I find myself talking to God only when I need something. But in that moment, I bowed my head, and just let the thank yous pour out.
I was in Italy – thank you. I’d been given the chance to study abroad – thank you. I hadn’t been harmed in the recent London terrorist attacks – thank you. I had family and friends who loved and supported me – thank you. My mother had recently won her battle with cancer – thank you. I crossed myself, and was at peace.
Written by: Julia Stier
Julia Stier is an LA-based actress, playwright, and songwriter. When she’s not in rehearsal, she loves to travel and write about her experiences. You can learn more about Julia at juliastier.com