Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
The canonization of the "seven in heaven" this weekend was incredible. I met a lot of great people all over the world, and they let me know their thoughts as well. But first, let me tell you what I experienced.
What is the morning of a canonization like? You’ll probably receive a mixed answer, but for my family, it was a hurricane of rush and confusion fused with joy and gratefulness. Planning started on Saturday afternoon when we learned that the Mass begins at 10 a.m. and the security gates under the Bernini Columns would open at 7 a.m. Armed with this info, we started at 6:00 a.m., early enough to wake the kids, get them dressed, get a little something that resembles a breakfast in their bellies and then get over to St. Anne’s gate.
Everything was pretty good until we turned the corner at the Vatican walls near the gate and I realized I forgot the tickets for Mass in my room! If you want to see me make my best Usain Bolt impression, catch me that morning at the Musei Vaticani. It took me about twelve minutes to get the tickets and get back, but the scene by the time I re-arrived . . . everything was different.
The line was a crowd, and that crown was huge. Almost impenetrable, I had to squeeze through several people, who probably thought I was cutting in line, to get through to my family.
When I did meet up with her, there was a pile of my second eldest son’s breakfast and juice on the ground—if you know what I mean—he was definitely sick. There were several nuns and laypersons surrounding him to bring him water and moist wipes, which we had, too, but it was an immensely sweet act of kindness.
7am passed and, par for the course in Italy, the gates did not open. But, after a while, they did. Security sectioned off the crowd and let each advance successively. As we moved, a team of Vietnamese nuns would surround the kids like a forcefield, not allowing anyone to push them or cut them off! Meanwhile, other religious groups like a group of Bolivian sisters had locked arms and made sure they got where they needed to go—together. The organization I witnessed was hilarious and impressive.
We got to security, pointed in a specific direction, through security, then into the square where it was a rat race to find the most desirable seats. We chose seats right near the obelisk though we could have sat muhc closer. When you travel with a large family, landmarks mean a lot!
The wait, the kids, the potty breaks, a set of naps for the youngest of them, the looks of 'oh my gosh they have four kids and they don't look absolutely crazy,' and the "can we sit here" while the kids are gone on potty breaks, and eventually the Mass started. I'll say it was unique and it ran about like an Easter vigil: long with a lot of readings. Two-and-a-half hours in total, there was a lot of pomp, and when you have 70,000 to minister to and a large number of VIPs present, Mass takes a while longer.
It was something I'll never forget, probably because Paul VI means a lot to my marriage, something I wrote about a few days ago—he is the reason my wife is Catholic.
And like I said, we met a lot of people from all over the world. I said on Twitter: "Flags from all over the world with each present for the same purpose. No, it’s not the G3 Summit or the UN Council. It’s St. Peter’s Basilica on canonization day."
Here's some of the reactions I received.
Rossa, from Perugia: “We are here for Paolo Sesto. He is the most famous where we are from, and we remember when we died, so this is a special occasion for us.”
No name, from Frankfurt: “We are here for Kasper. She is very well known in the Frankfurt area to the Catholics there. My mother told me about her when I was a boy. I can't believe we are here to see her be canonized. My mother would cry."
Sister Elizabeth, from Vietnam: "We are the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres. We are here for the Holy Father and all of the saints, not just pope Paul VI. We are glad that he finished Vatican II and we think today of the universal church. We love him deeply."
Priests Jinto and George-Matthew, from the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in India (an Eastern church that is in full communion with the Holy See): “I’ve been here for two months. We study at the pontifical college here. It’s a wonderful place to be for us. We are proud of the work that Pope Paul VI did for the Vatican Council, and we are just excited to be part of this event.”
Tom from Pennsylvania, “My brother is a priest from Cleveland. They’ve had a mission to El Salvador for over 50 years, and he is here on the altar, serving today. I live in Austria, but we’re from Pennsylvania, and we’re close followers of Archbishop Romero. As I said, my brother is a priest and he works in a very dangerous part of El Salvador, so we pray for him often, and this is a mighty occasion for him. Sometimes I hear grumbling about Paul VI, but we know he worked very hard—he and Romero both were the last ones to turn the lights off at night.”
I also met people after the Mass.
In the train station, I met Julia, from El Salvador. I noticed she was wearing one of the Oscar Romero shirts, so I went over and gave her one of the Romero medals I had blessed at the Mass. "I am from San Salvador, but my sister here lives in Italy. Everyone in El Salvador knows Oscar, many call him "Monsignor," he is very famous and this is a huge event for our country. He is our first saint." I can second this, as it seems a majority of the crowd was from San Salvador or there to support the cause of Oscar Romero. I heard there was a large group from the Diocese of Los Angeles as well, which has many who hail from El Salvador.
Finally, on the ride home from the train, we got off at our final stop in Vicenza where we live currently. Near the end of the platform, I could see two older ladies with huge smiles on their faces. I hate to say it this way, but I knew something was up because this is not normal for Italian where I live. They were staring at us, waiting for us to approach with enormous smiles. I asked my wife, "Do you know these ladies?"
Immediately she said, "Oh my gosh, those are the two women from the line. When you ran back to get the tickets, they were the ones helping Tristan clean up after being sick."
Translated only in part because I can only understand 30-50% of the Italian I hear, "Compliments to you. We saw you in Rome. Did you enjoy the canonization Mass?"
"I was a very tender moment for us, too. You are wonderful parents and your family is beautiful. Continue this way, and it will bless you for a lifetime."
"Grazie. Tanto auguri. Arrivederci."
If there's anything to cap off a weekend celebrating the life of Pope Paul VI, is what that woman said on the platform.