Yesterday, I arrived in Rome, and in the afternoon I went to the Vatican. The first thing I wanted to do was to get a ticket for the General Audience on Wednesday (success!) and then I went to pay tribute to the late John Paul II.
Just before departure, I finished reading George Weigel's large biography of the man, and it made me realise actually how little I really knew about him. Or at least how much about him and his life and work that I either didn't know, or more accurately, didn't fully understand.
I made my way to the northern side of St Peter's Square and went through a metal detector. Then followed the crowd up the steps, and the path divides into three lines, one for entry to the Basilica, one to queue up for entry to the dome, and the third for the papal tombs.
On my previous visit (in 1998) I remember accessing the papal tombs from inside the Basilica, the staircase to the right of the baldachino. But now I entered through a door in the courtyard to the right of the basilica itself.
Along a corridor, and then out into the tombs area, which now looked familiar. On the right I saw the resting place of Paul VI, next on the left is John Paul I, and then on the right a slightly unusual one, if you'll pardon the expression: Queen Christina of Sweden, who was a convert.
Soon after that, on the right, is the last resting place of Joannes Paulus II, with the dates of his pontificate written on stone beneath his name. The queue was long, but moved quickly, as people briefly crossed themselves or genuflected. About eight feet back from the tomb, was a rope, behind which there were about four or five nuns on their knees. Other laypeople were kneeling as well.
In the corner of my eye, I noticed that the couple in front of me had handed their rosary beads and medals to one of the gentleman staff, and he had placed them on the tombstone, so I took out my own beads and gave them to him, and he did likewise, hoping that when I pray my Rosary, the late Holy Father will be praying with me and for me.
Understandably, the gentlemen on duty were keen to allow the line to move quickly and give as many people as possible a chance to pay homage. A recorded message over the speaker reminds everybody that this is a sacred place, and asks for silence.
Ever gone to a place like this and felt irritated about long queues? Me too (see post below about Venice and St Mark's Basilica). So from now on I will try, in this scenario, to imagine that such people are really my brothers and sisters in Christ, and they are going in to pray for me.
On this occasion, I was actually hoping in advance that the queue would be long, as a tribute to the man.
The beauty really is that this is not just a once-in-a-lifetime event. I know I will have other opportunities to come and visit his last resting place and say thank you.
But is it his last resting place? John XXIII was buried down in that area, but now he has been moved upstairs to the main basilica itself.
I got 1700 Mass at the altar under St Peter's Chair.
Today, visited Santa Maria Maggiore and got 12 noon Mass in St John Lateran. Also visited Santa Susanna, the church run by the American Paulists, which has 1800 weekday Mass which I will probably get some day this week. On Friday, from 1pm, they have a used book sale so I might pick up something good there.
One thing changed since my last visit is the introduction of the faster bus number 40, with fewer stops, from Termini Station to Piazza Pia, which is the square just on the west side of the Tiber at the beginning of Via della Conciliazione.
More Italy to follow. Watch this blog.