We’ve Got a Tough Pope

Br Kevin McKenzie's visit to the Pope's Wednesday General Audience in Rome helps him discover a little more about Benedict XVI.
by Br Kevin McKenzie, LC | Source: Catholic.net

We were sitting in St Peter’s square, waiting for Pope Benedict XVI to appear.  And we were all freezing.  After a winter of papal audiences inside the warm and spacious Paul VI Audience Hall, the Vatican organizers had decided that it was time to move outside.  I’m sure they made that decision when things were warm.

In the morning, Rome awoke to a very loud thunderstorm which was then whisked away by some incredible gusts of wind.  All of us in St Peter’s Square were rocked by what felt like ninety-mile-an-hour winds.  The temperature must have been in the low forties, although with the wind chill it felt like the teens.  My friends and I came two hours early so we could get good seats.  After half an hour of waiting, I couldn’t feel my feet anymore.  But none of that stopped the Pope or the 5,000 screaming pilgrims behind me.

On the way to St. Peter’s there had been postcards from a souvenir shop strewn all down a street the length of a football field. Once there, both of the Swiss guards to my left had to chase after their hats, snatched rather impertinently from their heads by the wind.  In the intervals, they spent their time fixing the wooden barrier each of the five times it was blown over. 

The Pope came in right on time as usual and drove up and down between the aisles to greet the pilgrims filling the square.  Wherever he went, they thronged and pressed to see him.  Then he drove up the steps in front of the basilica and took his place on the platform.  He began the audience with the sign of the cross.

What a contrast!  Everyone around me was wrapped in scarves and winter coats.  The Holy Father stood there in his simple white cassock.   We were all shivering, but it was the Holy Father who braved the cold best.  At the beginning of his address he adlibbed: “Even though it’s cold, at least it’s not snowing or raining!”  This was true; it was a very beautiful sunny day. 

He spoke to us about Saint Bede the Venerable, a Doctor of the Church.  He went into great detail about Bede’s life and work.  You could tell that the Holy Father hadn’t thrown his talk together; he gave a masterly and comprehensive reflection on this English saint.  He wasn’t just reading a text written by someone else.  Some of the deepest reflections he gave were when he set his paper aside and started talking right to us; it felt like we were students gathered around our teacher.

The wind kept at it.  I counted about 20 balloons blow up the steps and right by the Holy Father, to the chagrin of all the guards trying to capture them.  A little way into the talk, his zucchetto, the white hat Popes wear, flew off with a gust of wind.  It didn’t faze him in the least.  Without missing a bear, he went on zucchetto-less for the rest of the audience.

Everyone expected things to go a little quicker, but here in Rome, the Holy Father sets the pace, and he was taking his time.  He knew that most of the thousands of pilgrims gathered in the square had come from far away to see and hear him, and that for most this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.  He spoke in Italian, French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Croatian, Slovakian, Slovenian, and Hungarian.  The announcers in the different languages tried to go a little quicker than usual, but the Holy Father took his time and waved to each group that cried out as their name was called.  Many groups even sang songs for the Pope and he listened happily to them all.

His last words to us were in gratitude: “Thank you for your patience with the wind and the cold!”  As the twenty or so bishops lined up to give their respects, the masters of ceremonies tried to move them along quickly.  But again, the Holy Father took his time, not just greeting each of them, but actually holding a little conversation with each bishop.  He did the same with the fifty lucky pilgrims whom he walked over to greet afterwards.

As we stood up for the Holy Father’s blessing, I and all those around me shivered in the cold.  But the Holy Father stood firm.  Though cold himself, he didn’t falter or hurry his words.  He blessed us with calm and dignity and determination.  Now I know why he is “The Rock”.  The words slipped from my mouth: “Man, we’ve got a tough Pope!”

Br Kevin McKenzie, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome.

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