Pope Benedict XVI

Witness to History: A Purple Papal Pilgrimage

ROME, Italy -- At 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27, the street in front of St. Thomas' Bernardi Campus sits silent.

Inside, the Bernardi lobby is energized with the anticipation of a dozen St. John Vianney seminarians. In five hours, Pope Benedict XVI will appear at his final audience before resigning the papacy.

For me, it's an early morning. But the seminarians' excitement for the events of the day is all the caffeination I need to make the brisk two-mile walk to St. Peter's Basilica. A lone woman, accompanied by a pack of future priests dressed in full cassocks, we descend on the deserted city as we make our pilgrimage to St. Peter's Square.

Just before 6 a.m., the walls of the Vatican are in sight. We are nearly there, but a critical detour is taken when the seminarians duck into a tiny basement bakery to fuel up on sugary Italian pastries. While their appearance would have you believe they are proper, buttoned-down members of the clergy, at the end of the day (or the very early morning) they remain 20-something college students. And they are hungry.

An extra half dozen pastries are picked up for the UST Catholic Studies students and fellow Bernardians who left campus even earlier - at 2:15 a.m.

Pope Benedict XVI waves at some of the 300,000 attendees of his final papal audience before resigning. (Photo by Mark Brown)

Pope Benedict XVI waves at some of the 300,000 attendees of his final papal audience before resigning. (Photo by Mark Brown)

We arrive at the colonnade outside St. Peter's piazza just as the sun begins to rise over the scaffolding occupied by dozens of news organizations from around the world. We are among the first to get there, but the crowd grows quickly as Catholic pilgrims from seemingly every country arrive to bid farewell to the pontiff. Nearby, a group of American students studying in Austria have just stepped off a 14-hour bus ride.

The sun now overhead, our seminarians form a tight circle and begin the morning prayer as many others join in multiple languages. One of them hands me a prayer card so I can follow along, but as a people-watcher I'm too distracted to keep up. As they say Amen, many begin devouring "round two" of the Italian pastries they had stashed for later in the morning. One even recommends the bakery to the road-weary students from the bus.

Soon, the gates open. The crowd begins to crush toward the security checkpoint. The most aggressive of the pilgrims are a group of nuns, none of whom are taller than four and a half feet and none of whom are younger than 70 years. Seating inside the piazza is general admission and the coveted aisle seats are at stake. Everyone wants to be as close to the roped-off passageway as possible to get the optimum view of the Popemobile as it makes its final laps with Benedict XVI.

A location is staked out. And now, with 300,000 of our closest friends, we wait.

During the two and a half hours between finding our seats and Benedict's appearance, the piazza is chaotic and joyful. French school children sing American pop music and the French national anthem. Brazilian men stand atop chairs and chant "Be-ne-detto!" Italian teenagers strum guitars and change the words to Beatles songs to lyrics that suited the celebration. In every direction, posters emblazoned with words of thanks are hoisted.

Amidst the almost party-like atmosphere, organ music begins to pour from the speakers and the Holy Father appears. He stands in his armored vehicle, accompanied by his sharply dressed Swiss Guard - the Vatican equivalent of the Secret Service. Legend has it that the uniforms worn by the guard were designed by Michelangelo himself.

Cameras, phones, handkerchiefs and flags go up as well-wishers greet Benedict. He takes his time encircling the piazza and even blesses a handful of children handed to him along the way. The crowd becomes steadfastly pious and respectful - a stark contrast from the boisterous interaction prior to the pontiff's appearance. Once he reaches his seat at the midpoint between the towering statues of Peter and Paul, the crowd sits as if asked to do so at the beginning of Mass.

Benedict is thankful and lets the crowd know in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, German and French. His words are scratchy and weak, but heartfelt and meaningful. His humanity is apparent.

As he finishes, he leads the entire audience in the singing of "Our Father" in Latin. Then, quickly - as if to keep from prolonging the goodbye - he departs, leaving his pilgrims to ponder the stunning Roman afternoon. In the matter of a day, he has vacated the Vatican, making way for his faithful brothers to enter the conclave and choose his successor.

It was by pure stroke of luck that a project brought me to Rome this week. But I am forever grateful to have lived history in this Eternal City.

Kate Metzger, Newsroom associate director, along with Web and Media Services videographer Brad Jacobsen and University Relations photographer Mark Brown, traveled to Rome Feb. 25 - March 3 for a special project on behalf of the Center for Catholic Studies.