VATICAN CITY — Yesterday I attended my first ever papal general audience, which takes place every Wednesday morning at 10:30 in the Vatican audience hall (during the winter, but in the spring and summer it’s in St. Peter’s Square). It was not what I expected of my first time seeing the pope!
Groups of people from all around the world gathered together to receive Pope Benedict’s blessing. My personal favorite was the Italian circus group, who performed a juggling act before the entire hall. At the end of their performance they brought in a baby lion, at which point the pope stood up from his seat to pet him! The moment revealed the pope’s warm personality and happiness to spend time among his followers.
The mariachi band from Mexico came in a close second on my list of favorites, and it, too, brought a smile to the pope’s face. I’d have to say that the Hispanic countries were the most vibrant — groups from Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico, among others, performed short songs in which the whole audience joined in by clapping. The groups from the U.S. and other parts of the world were a bit more subdued (except for the many Italian children in attendance, whose cheering prompted laughter from the rest of the audience a few times), but excited nonetheless.
I was surprised at how interactive the session was; I had expected the pope to speak the entire time in Italian, and I assumed that I would be pretty clueless as to what was going on. But the Scripture reading was done in several different languages, and while the pope’s main remarks were in Italian, his gestures and smiles were welcoming to all. The pope proclaimed 2008-2009 as a year dedicated to St. Paul and has been talking about the apostle at his general audience each week.
It was moving to see people from diverse backgrounds so genuinely pleased to have the opportunity to be together before the pope. Although they weren’t able to communicate well with one another, they shared a common bond in their love and eagerness to see the Holy Father.
I spoke briefly afterwards with a group of students from the University of Delaware who are spending their winter term, which lasts through the end of January, here in Italy. After attending vespers on Sunday and sitting only six rows back from the pope today, they were excited and energized at being blessed by the Holy Father. Like me, they were surprised that the pope and bishops in attendance spoke so many different languages, and they agreed that the experience was worthwhile, exceeding their expectations.