71,004 is the officially listed seating capacity of Farout Field in Columbia, where fans gather to watch the Mizzou Tigers play football each fall. 1.3 million has been the reported combined attendance for the canonization of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II for those in the vicinity of St. Peter’s as well as those watching on screens across the city. That’s over 18 Farout Fields filled to capacity.
As the weeks and days approached for the canonization I began to realize just how difficult it is to even come close to comprehending a crowd of that size.
As the city continued to fill up with pilgrims in the final days leading up to the ordination I left to help lead a retreat for a group of families from all over Italy. We planned the retreat so we could return on Saturday, in time for the canonization. Those who desired to do so could go to St. Peter’s Square and wait all night. That’s just what I did.
Upon return to the Eternal City I ran across town as quickly as one could given the increased traffic. I packed a bag with some water, snacks, sleeping bag, and my breviary. I made my way down the hill and met up with a group of fellow seminarians from the Pontifical North American College.
There we created our space to sleep, hang out and pray amongst the sea of pilgrims. It was quite the camp site. There was a great excitement in the air as many were singing in several different languages, flags from countries all of the world could be seen waving above the crowds.
At one point in the night we were all allowed onto the Via della Conciliazione, the street leading up to St. Peter’s Square. As the crowds made their way onto the street, I was separated from my group. At that point we were still not allowed into St. Peter’s Square, so everyone had to remain standing in a crowd taking up the length of the street.
After an initial wave of movement, I found myself with a few Italians who belong to Communion and Liberation movement. Having just returned from a retreat of another movement within the Church provided for a nice conversation about the different movements within the Church and their respective charisms.
When the crowd finally settled in for the long haul, I found myself surrounded people from Italy, France, Poland, Romania, and Spain. In particular there were groups of high school students from France and Poland. Both groups loved to sing. At times they even sang back and forth with each other in the different languages. Neither spoke the other’s language, yet they were able to communicate a great joy between each other because of their common faith. Displays of flags and the singing of songs at events such as this are concrete expressions of the true Catholicity, that is, the universality, of the Church.
After many hours standing around, we finally made our way forward towards St. Peter’s Square. I ended up on the very edge of St. Peter’s Square in the area that is officially known as the Pope Pius XII Square.
As for the Mass itself, there were two moments that stick out in particular. The first came during the Formula for Canonization, the moment when the Pope declares the blessed to be a saint, and the second during the Eucharistic Prayer.
Everyday each of us say any number of words, most of them inconsequential. Only in certain cases do our words have an effect on reality. When a baseball umpire declares a player “out!”, the player is actually, “out.” No matter how many times we yell “Safe!” at the television, nothing changes, the player is still, “out.” This phenomenon, on a much more important matter, is what makes the Formula of Canonization so special.
Only the Pope, on behalf of the universal Church, has the authority to declare someone a saint. So when he prays the Formula of Canonization, he does so with that same authority, and the Church from that moment forward and forever enroll that person, or in this case St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II, among all the saints.
In our diocese, many are praying and working hard for the beatification of the Servant of God, Fr. Augustine Tolton. While it is a good and holy thing, something to be encouraged, that we continue working and praying for his cause, until the Pope declares him to be among the beatified, he will still be considered a Servant of God by the Church.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to directly hear the long-used Formula of Canonization. The words prayed in Latin by the Pope are the same words that have been prayed by many popes throughout the history of the Church at many canonizations. While on retreat in the days leading up to the canonization, I stayed at the shrine of the Redemptorist priest, St. Gerard Majella. There in a display amongst his other effects, was the Missal used at this Canonization in 1904, opened to the Formula of Canonization.
Two days later I heard those same words coming from Pope Francis. It was a powerful spiritual experience. Specifically, it is a moment in which one feels a particularly connection not only with those being canonized, but all the saints, a connection between Heaven and Earth. It is a particularly intimate moment between God and man. It is this same connection between God and Man that also made the Eucharistic prayer such a powerful experience.
After standing for nearly 12 hours straight without sitting, we finally arrived at the Eucharistic Prayer. Just like thousands of other times when I have attended Mass, I knelt. Yet, this time, in part due to the physical circumstances, kneeling too became a deep spiritual experience in itself. Kneeling becomes something that many of us take for granted, and when that happens, we lose the true significance of the act.
In this case I was already physically weak, tired, and sore, yet kneeling on hard cobblestones became a great grace. That is because in that moment, I knew exactly why we were kneeling, for Christ, for his sacrifice on the Cross, and his presence in the Eucharist. All of the supposed suffering I was experiencing physically, suddenly seemed like nothing, as it truly was in comparison with his sacrifice on the Cross.
In the end, the entire canonization experience, beginning with waiting in line with fellow Catholics from all over the world, to the Formula of Canonization, and finally receiving the Eucharist, truly was an experience that can be summed up with the first line of that same Formula of Canonization. It was an experience “For the honor of the Blessed Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life.”