VATICAN CITY — Last night I read a prayer of the faithful in English at the Mass that Pope Benedict XVI celebrated to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II.
It was one of the highlights of my time in Rome and comes at the close of my nearly five-month stay. Since November, I have worked for Catholic News Service and for Vatican Radio.
At the memorial Mass last night, I was the first of five people reading the petitions in five different languages. This is the petition:
For the Holy Church: that it may not cease, with the force of the Spirit, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus in whose name only lies the salvation for every man who comes into the world.
Although they are just a few words, it turns out that reading a petition is no simple matter at a papal Mass celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica.
I was contacted by the office that handles the papal liturgies about a month ago, after I wrote to them asking if there might be some way I could participate in a papal liturgy before I departed Rome.
I received a phone message from that office one evening about three weeks ago, asking me to call back the next day. I spent the night wondering just what might be in store.
The next day I called and a nice priest who works in the office asked me if I would like to read a petition in English at the upcoming Mass for Pope John Paul II. In my letter to his office I had stated that Pope John Paul II had been a great influence in my decision to pursue the priesthood, so I was delighted to be asked to read at the Mass for him. I was told to show up for a rehearsal on Monday, March 29, at 9 a.m. in St. Peter’s Basilica.
I went to the rehearsal and met up with my fellow petition readers: a nun from Spain, a Polish teenaged girl, a German laywoman and a French member of a lay community.
We were assigned our own “master of ceremonies” who led us through the rehearsal: where to sit, where to walk, how to read, when to bow, where to turn, etc. He gave us special passes to let us into the section close to the altar. And he told us to be back by 5 p.m. for the Mass that started at 6 p.m. He also told me to wear a cassock, not just a clerical shirt and suit.
Msgr. Guido Marini, who runs the liturgies for the pope, spoke to us about the liturgy and our part in it. He thanked us for our service and gave us a beautiful holy card that he said was from the pope.
I was ready to read … except for that part about the cassock.
I usually wear a clerical shirt and black pants and I don’t own a cassock. So with the help of a number of fellow Jesuits we found a cassock that fit me, (extra-large) ironed it and pinned the belt on and I was then heading back at St. Peter’s for the actual Mass. It was the first time I have ever worn a cassock, even though I have been a priest for 15 years.
I was nervous and excited as the Mass began, and this continued through the readings and the pope’s beautiful homily on his friend, Pope John Paul.
But when the time came to approach the altar in front of the pope and dozens of cardinals and dignitaries and thousands of the faithful in the basilica, I felt great peace, calm and joy at this wonderful opportunity. I drew strength from the tremendous witness that Pope John Paul had given to me during his long pontificate, which had included all my years of training for the priesthood.
I approached the pulpit, turned the page, looked out into the faces of thousands of people and read the petition, turned and went back in line. It lasted about 30 seconds and was followed by a chanted response by a deacon nearby.
Relieved that it had all gone well, I watched as the liturgy continued. With the seats we were given I was able to see up close how the pope celebrates the Mass. Everything he did in offering the Mass was slow, careful, deliberate and with great reverence. He seemed to disappear within the rubrics and prayers of the Mass.
At the conclusion of the Mass the pope came down the steps of the altar at St. Peter’s. He looked me right in the eyes and made the sign of the cross over me and other petition readers. It was a very memorable and special moment that I will never forget.
Before I read my petition, the pope closed his homily with this prayer that captured the meaning and message of the event for me and with which I will close this last blog from Rome:
Let us entrust ourselves with confidence, following the example of the Venerable John Paul II, to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of the church, so that she will sustain us in the commitment to be, in every circumstance, tireless apostles of her divine son and of his merciful love. Amen.