Something Bigger Than Myself

St. Peter's Square, 24. February 2013

St. Peter’s Square, 24. February 2013

The air is filled with energy; the mood is electrifying. People from all the over world – different countries, different walks of life, and even different faiths – have come to St. Peter’s Square today to witness the last public appearance of Pope Benedict XVI. There is singing, clapping, chanting, and shouting as people prepare for this historic moment. By chance I happen to be in Rome this weekend while studying abroad in Florence for the semester. An excursion that was planned months ago put me in the right place at the right time. This predestined trip has allowed me to cross paths with fate and witness history.

As I look around the square I see flags from all over the globe: Brazil, Paraguay, Chile representing South America; the United States and Mexico representing North America; Spain, Germany, Portugal, Romania, France, Italy are just a few representing Europe, along with a few flags representing Africa. Over 200,000 people have traveled from around the world to be here. Many of my fellow classmates and I are faces in the crowd today.

Today, February 24, 2013, Pope Benedict or Joseph Ratzinger is making his final Sunday blessing, otherwise known as Angelus, after serving as the 265th pope and head of the Catholic Church for seven and a half years. His decision to step down from the papacy is almost unprecedented; he is the first pope in 598 years to resign from his duties. The beloved Pope, who has put the majority of his years in service to the church, will resign on February 28th and disappear from the public eye. He will reside in a small private monastery in the Vatican Gardens, to live the remainder of his days in peace, isolated from the world. The decision to step down has thrown the church into a state of chaos for the time being. Usually, by the time the pope dies, there has been warning and the cardinals have already started to think about his successor. His resignation caught the entire Catholic world off guard and now the seat of the papacy is up for grabs. However, that will be dealt with in the coming weeks and a new pope should be elected in time for Easter. But at this moment, no one burdens themselves with these thoughts. Instead, everyone focuses on remembering and celebrating Pope Benedict’s reign.

DSCN2103People are united in this moment. At this point, it is irrelevant where you are from or even what you believe. We are all together in this one point in time – Jews, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, agnostics, and probably other faiths are gathered to see the Pope. This moment is greater than any single faith because we are all here for this historic event. Those of us who are not Catholic however, have the honor of getting to share in the celebration – the celebration of the Pope’s service to his church – regardless of our differences in beliefs.

Fellow photographers in St. Peter's Square.

Fellow photographers in St. Peter’s Square.

We had arrived in the square almost two and a half hours early to guarantee we would have a prime spot to see the pope. As we all sit around, we talk, play cards, and joke with each other. I take the opportunity to go out and explore the crowd and snap pictures. I attempt to capture this historic day in images. The scene is rich with photo ops and with some luck I am able to take a few decent shots.

11:40 – With 20 minutes until Benedict’s address, the crowd has now filled the entire square. The police have told us to stand up to make room for more people. The crowd is now large, loud, and filled with excitement.

11:50 – We’re getting closer. Now I’m clapping and chanting with the crowd. Signs are up, flags raised, and banners strung out across the whole square.

11:55 – The window opens up and the crowd cheers. Two men are seen in the window and they drape the papal banner out of the window and set up the podium. I am now beyond excited. The Pope will emerge soon and make his historic last address. The energy coming from the crowd is at a new level; everyone is bouncing with anticipation.

Pope Benedict appearing in the window at his last public address.

Pope Benedict appearing in the window at his last public address.

12:00 – Pope Benedict XVI emerges. The crowd goes crazy. The entirety of Saint Peter’s Square erupts with applause for the Pope. But once he begins to speak, a deadly silence falls across the crowd. Cameras are up in the air snapping photos to document this event, and faces are fixated on the small man in the window. (And just to throw this out there, I was a little disappointed he wasn’t wearing the big hat!) He gives his address in Italian, pausing momentarily as the crowd’s cheer cuts him off. He finishes up his address, then goes on to bless the crowd in seven different languages, English included. He finishes his blessing with, “and let us continue to fix our eye on Christ the Lord.” The crowd erupts again, chanting “Benedetto!” as people wave their flags and shake their signs.

As I gaze around at the crowd, I see we are all united – different creeds, nationalities, and faiths – for this one moment in history. For some in the crowd, this is a holy pilgrimage, a spiritual journey to see their leader step down from his duties. I do not practice Catholicism, but in this moment I, and so many others, share in the celebration. Being in the crowd – being a part of something bigger than myself – was a transcendent experience. I cannot put into words the joy, love, and energy radiating from the mass of people gathered together for what is only a drop of water in the pool of time. Another page of history has been written and I have lived the words on the page.

Matthew Billingsley Matthew Billingsley is a senior at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. He double majors in History and Psychology and is currently studying abroad in Florence, Italy with the American Institute for Foreign Study. He’s also a media intern for EuroAdventures and writes for their blog. In his own words: “I play music, go on adventures, write about it all, and love the life I live.”

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