The Pilgrims and the Pope

Pope Francis audience June 2018

photo: Matthew R. Anderson

“The pilgrims of the Spanish-speaking countries pray for you, Holy Father,” intoned an Archbishop (I think that’s what he was?). Below where I sat sweating under the an unseasonably hot Roman sun, perhaps a thousand of the massed faithful erupted into cheers and flag-waving. Pope Francis leaned forward in his plain leather chair, speaking into the mic in Italian. In his address, he reminded us that we are not slaves, but “children, and pilgrims.” I noticed that the metal roof above his head was hinged. I’m guessing that, if there was a danger, the entire roof section could swing down as a shield. This Pope seems uninterested in shielding. A group beside me, from Michigan, fanned themselves. One of the younger women looked up from her smart phone: “I found a lunch spot but it’s at least three-quarters of a mile away. Can you walk that far?” An older man – her father? – lifted his baseball cap and grumbled: “It’s part of being a pilgrim, I guess.” So much pilgrim language. Meanwhile Pope Francis had left his chair. He looked much happier than he had while separated from the crowds. Now he beamed, reaching out to touch people, extending his arms in blessing, shaking hands, smiling broadly. All around me, people were lifting children over their heads, pressing rosaries forward, shouting: “Pappi! Pappi!” Francis leaned over the barrier to a couple in full wedding dress, the young man grinning from ear to ear. The bride, all in white, pressed a photo into the Pope’s hand. As I watched, he blessed it, then, while he blessed the couple as well, a man in a black suit behind him took the photo from his hand, and passed it to another black suit, who handed it to a third man in sunglasses, who walked away from the scrum, idly checking his cell phone. He opened a white plastic bin and placed the photo inside. To my mind, all the elements of pilgrimage came together in that moment: presence, story, a holy terrain, and a material and spiritual transaction. The young couple, via their photo, had reached their pilgrim destination. As had I.

With thanks to my fellow pilgrim, Archbishop Don, for arranging my participation.