Sitting on the base of one of the Bernini columns ringing St. Peter’s Square a few Sundays ago, I began thinking about the universality or anyway the universal appeal of the Catholic Church.
On this cool, sunny morning thousands of people have joined me in waiting for Pope Benedict XVI to stand in the window of his apartment and give his weekly Angelus talk and blessing. Judging from the faces I see and the languages I hear, there are Americans and English and Irish, French and Germans, Italians and Spaniards, Japanese, Latin Americans, Africans and much, much else.
Winding two-thirds of the way around the perimeter of the square is a line of people edging slowly toward the basilica itself. Men and women, young and old, tourists and devout, they appear content to endure a substantial wait in order to see what? An architectural monument from half a millennium ago or a symbol of vibrant, living faith? The answer, I conclude, is: probably both.
There are many other much-visited places besides St. Peter's Square waiting to be seen on this splendid Sunday. But I sense something special about this particular place. Perhaps the uniqueness has to do with the fact, rare in our troubled contemporary world, that here at least everyone is welcome. And that nobody has to pay.
Yes, of course there's security. The people waiting in line must pass through a magnetometer before they can get into St. Peter's. And the Carabinieri are much in evidence around the Colonnade. The watchfulness that became a necessity on the terrible day 25 years ago when a hitman shot the pope has been redoubled since September 11, 2001.
Still, security doesn't dampen the enthusiasm. A few minutes before the pope is to appear, the window overlooking the square opens and a cheer goes up as a tapestry with the papal coat of arms is unfurled. Banners and flags flutter cheerfully in the crowd. There's a knot of people up front all wearing yellow baseball caps.
Now it's noon and Pope Benedict is at the window. More cheers and applause. He has just finished his annual Lenten retreat, and he speaks to us about Christ, about heaven, about love for the poor. He seems happy and relaxed. Even people who can't understand his Italian listen intently as if just hearing him were important. Greetings to several pilgrimage groups in several different languages. A blessing in Latin. When it's over, people look happy leaving the square.
This multicultural, multiracial scene is a microcosm of Christian Rome and the Catholic Church, I think. The basilica stands on the burial site of a Christian Jew from Palestine named Peter. At the residence where I'm staying, tables are reserved in the dining room for bishops from Cameroon making ad limina visits. Asian and African seminarians sporting natty cassocks with red buttons and red sashes sang at the parish Mass I attended with an Italian congregation earlier in the day.
Catholicism is a demanding religion in some ways. There are things you must believe, other things you must do or avoid, to be a member in good standing. Yet in essence the Church is all-inclusive. No one is outside looking in because of accidentals like race or nationality.
James Joyce, a very imperfect Catholic, called the Catholic Church “Here Comes Everybody.” Joyce was wrong about a lot of things, but he was eminently right about that. Spend an hour or two in St. Peter's Square some sunny Sunday morning and you'll see what I mean.
Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at [email protected].