Wednesday of our pilgrimage to Rome is in the history books. We certainly packed a lot into the experience. We started out the day with Mass at 8:00 a.m. at the Teutonic College literally between St. Peter's Basilica and the Paul VI Audience Hall. The location for Mass, literally next to a graveyard and the spot where many believe Christian martyrs shed their blood for the cause, was an intimate start to the day that allowed us to ground ourselves and begin the day in prayer.
Following Mass, we made our way (through the side entrance) of the Paul VI Audience Hall. If you haven't been to Rome before, Wednesdays are special as most midweeks throughout the year provide an opportunity to see the Pope up close at the weekly Papal Audience.
The audiences have kept relatively predictable in their content - brief prayer, reflection from the Holy Father, presentation of pilgrims from around the world, final prayer, dismissal. The audience hall seats more than 5,000 and every seat was full today. Getting to Vatican events early is a necessity especially during a consistory week and today was no exception - 2 hours was enough to guarantee we were in the first 10 rows of the Audience Hall, a great vantage point to take it all in.
It's also special when you know some of the "characters" involved in bringing the audience to life. Many folks from the Archdiocese of Toronto will know Fr. Owen Keenan, a Toronto priest who works in the Papal Household at the Vatican and has the responsibility of announcing the various english groups that are in attendance during the audience.
For the uninitiated, the presentation of pilgrims is a wonderful experience, heartfelt pilgrims and part street theatre with announcements of language groups literally spanning the globe. Priests stoically announce groups in Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, French, German and English to name a few. Once your group is acknowledged, you make a loud cheer, sing a song, wave a banner or even in today's case, hold up your baby (a large family organization from Italy was in attendance full of toddlers smiling and waving - see pic below). Throughout the experience, the Holy Father waves and smiles, providing the ultimate "Papal" moment (people can claim for years that "he waved at me") before sitting down in their places. See below a sample of our Canadian contingent...
At the end of the audience, a small group are invited to come and personally meet the Holy Father. Cardinal-designate Collins actually had the chance to meet the Pontiff along with other bishops and cardinals present for the audience. Likely a case of "I'll see you again later this week" as the cardinal to be will have no less than four moments with the Pope over the course of the week. A wonderful expression of the diversity of our global church, it's definitely worth the experience if you ever make your way to Rome.
The afternoon was a free one for our pilgrims. Yours truly and resident photographer Emanuel Pires, hit the hustings for a round of media interviews with the Cardinal-designate on the rooftop of what is affectionately known as "Maria Bambina" a residence for nuns and the odd traveler. It also plays host to one of the most beautiful and scenic rooftops in Italy. It's rumored that a major American network was renting the rooftop out for years at the tune of $5,000/month in anticipation of the passing of Pope John Paul II.
Today it was home to our media interviews and an interactive SKYPE session with students from the Cardinal-designate's alma mater, Bishop MacDonnel SS in Guelph as well as students from Holy Rosary elementary school in Malton. If you're not familiar with SKYPE, put simply, it's a video phone call over a computer or in our case an Ipad.
I'd love to say the SKYPE session was seamless - it wasn't. You quickly learn one of the most unpredictable parts of life in Rome is the intermittent wi-fi and cell phone signals. Not the best mix when you're coordinating media relations for a very critical juncture in the life of the Canadian church. So there were one, no two, no maybe 16 mini heart attacks when 10 minutes before our scheduled chat - with media on the rooftop in Rome, in schools in Guelph and Malton, the signal gave way.
Sprinting downstairs trying to find an alternate location - no signal, no signal, no signal. What to do? Plan B - try to get a SKYPE video signal and use a cellphone to get audio through a speaker phone. A little tardy for class, the Archbishop "arrived" virtually, answering questions for the gang in Guelph unfortunately with no video signal (we sent pics later but I know it's just not the same thing). At least the students gathered were in high school and didn't get too emotional over the glitch:)
For the Grade 3's at Holy Cross, we tried valiantly - even had a video and mic connection at one point but in the end also went with the cellphone but wonder of wonders, we did get our video signal working to the delight of the students (and Archbishop Collins). While the video dropped out a few times during our chat (where was the divine intervention?) we still had lots of fun. Below you'll see a pic of yours truly as Ipad holder and the Archbishop waving at the kids at Holy Cross.
I was very impressed with the maturity of the Grade 3's - they asked questions of the cardinal to be - what were you like growing up? What do you do in your free time? What are you excited most about being cardinal? They were a real treat and we wrapped up the session with a Hail Mary (I'd already recited several when the signal went down), likely one of the first "virtual" visits from the Vatican to the GTA that we're aware of. And yes, there was some nice media coverage of the event as well - let's not forget there are plenty of ways to evangelize even when a bishop isn't physically in the diocese:)
A few more radio, television and newspaper interviews and photos and the Archbishop completed 3 hours of media for a second day in the row. We are grateful to have many of the interviews done early in the week as things will really heat up once Friday comes along.
A big shout out as well to the crew back in Toronto (Bill Steinburg, Denise Torres, Kristen Carey) who are holding down the fort and coordinating media requests from that side of the ocean as well as putting together some impressive social media updates on Facebook, Twitter, etc. - have you checked out www.archtoronto.tumblr.com - there's all sorts of cool videos, pics, etc. on there that you'll want to check out - way to go Denise. Bill has been burning both ends of the candle as the six hour time difference in Rome means he's getting calls virtually around the clock and Kristen is ably coordinating RSVP's, meals, dignitaries and other events for a local celebration in Toronto on Feb. 29 for about 1,000 - so no, not too busy these days for our team:)
So as we move into the wee hours of the night and Thursday morning, it's time to wrap it up for the midweek portion of our pilgrimage and prepare for Thursday - lots ahead and an exciting time for all. Once again, we're grateful for the prayers and kind wishes being sent our way across the ocean - don't forget you're right here with us virtually and in spirit or as they say "and with your spirit".
Rome's a beautiful spot but I think I can say with confidence, when the historic locales were being constructed thousands of years ago, no one said, "let's make sure we build it so they can SKYPE". Pilgrimage is sometimes like our wifi signals - at times, stronger than ever, sometimes falling off for a moment but a pull that is always there - you just have to be in the right place to find it...
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