Forget San Fermin, Oktoberfest or the Love Parade. The real action on Europe’s greatest hits tour is at the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. That’s right, the Basilica di San Pietro (St Peter’s Basilica) in Rome is where it’s at.
The sheer size and lavish luxury of the world’s biggest church is impressive at any time but the real fun starts when it’s most famous face appears.
Pope Benedict XVI, the artist formerly known as Josef Ratzinger, may not have the same instant charisma of his rock-star-meeting, sunglass-wearing predecessor, but he can still pull a crowd and knows how to work the adoring masses into a frenzy.
I had taken in the modesty of St Peter’s before, and second time around with my wife in tow was planning a similar, leisurely stroll through the basilica and piazza. The crowds get pretty thick here at any time of year, but as we walked up the long straight approach of Via della Conciliazione, the hive of human activity in the piazza was humming. “It’s just a busy day,” I said, trying to sound like an expert on all things St Peter’s.
When we got to the piazza, it was completely full of rows of seats, which were completely full of rows of people. It was packed and the whole piazza was fenced off and patrolled by machine-gun wielding polizia and/or carabinieri (I never know the difference, although they are both not to be messed with, which is more than can be said for the Pope’s multi-coloured, pantaloon-wearing Swiss Guards).
The next penny to drop was that everyone getting past the uniforms patrolling the entrance had hot little tickets in their hands, which we did not. So we could either wait outside and watch a huge group of people waiting for something to happen, even though we had no idea what that something was?; or go inside and join the huge group of people waiting for something to happen, even though we still had no idea what that something was?
“Why not, we’re here. Let’s give it a go.” We may have indeed been here, but we didn’t have tickets, a matter I decided to approach delicately when we reached the uniform on the gate. “Do you need tickets to get in here?” I said, mustering as much bravado as possible. The reply was a clichéd Italian shrug of the shoulders, which said nothing but was a green light in anyone else’s language.
After the security pat down and baggage scanners, we were in and loving it. Except for the small detail that we still had absolutely no idea what was going on. The crowd was filled with the colour and excitement of modern-day pilgrims from all corners of the globe, enthusiastically waving their national flags. The buzz and anticipation started to rise and soon it became clear the masses were waiting for someone special to arrive. Then right on cue, the sea of people in the piazza began to part as a car made its way through the crowds. Not just any car, it was the Pope-mobile with the Pope himself on board.
It was at this exact point that my wife and I both felt a simultaneous feeling of utter excitement and embarrassment. Excited that we were about to see the Pope, and embarrassed that we were excited that we were about to see the Pope.
After working the crowd from his open-top chariot, the Pope was duly deposited right at the makeshift altar by his wheels. The cheering, flag waving and all round excitement went on and on. This was worship, but not as we knew it. ‘Papa’ was in da house and St. Peter’s was party central for his devoted followers.