The sun had not yet risen in Rome as I stood in line to attend the Oct. 19 beatification of Pope Paul VI.
Although the security gate in St. Peter’s Square would not open for another two hours, people were already streaming in, nestled together like a cluster of grapes. I looked up and noted the crescent moon above the colonnade. The upturned shape seemed to smile upon the occasion.
Sounds of joy were all around. To my right, a group of teenagers began to sing, harmonizing with youthful energy in English and Spanish.
To my left, a group of Italian priests huddled together and began to recite Morning Prayer. Some directed flashlights toward breviaries, while others read online versions from iPhones. Recognizing the familiar invocations, Italian nuns nearby joined in. I prayed silently, uniting myself with God, the communion of saints and especially our soon-to-be beatified Pope Paul VI.
When the gate opened, the crowd surged forward. I located a seat and watched as the piazza filled with thousands of people. Wave after wave of seminarians and nuns jogged past, determined to secure prime seats near the front.
I scanned the liturgy booklet and was grateful to discover a translation in English, a reminder of the visionary guidance of Pope Paul VI following Vatican II.
Although I was a small child in the early 1960s, I still remember the liturgical change from Latin to the vernacular. Hearing the words at Sunday Mass spoken in English for the first time, I was thrilled and responded to the prayers in my own language.
As the beatification liturgy began, the magnificence of the music, rituals and prayers was surprisingly intimate, not “lost in the crowd” or the immensity of the space, as I had imagined beforehand.
The congregation was calm, and I hung on every word as Pope Francis pronounced the words I had traveled thousands of miles to hear: “We declare that the Venerable Servant of God Paul VI, pope, shall henceforth be invoked as Blessed.”
Applause broke out, and a tapestry of the newly beatified was unfurled from the balcony. The arms of Pope Paul were open wide in love and joy, and he seemed to share in the promise of Jesus, saying, “See, I am with you always.”
During his homily, Pope Francis referred to Pope Paul VI as “the great helmsman of the Council” and cited a passage from his journal following the final session: “Perhaps the Lord has called me and preserved me for this service not because I am particularly fit for it, or so that I can govern and rescue the Church from her present difficulties, but so that I can suffer something for the Church; and in that way, it will be clear that he, and no other, is her guide and Savior.”
Honoring the fortitude of his predecessor, Pope Francis continued, “In this humility, the grandeur of Blessed Paul VI shines forth: Before the advent of a secularized and hostile society, he could hold fast, with farsightedness and wisdom — and at times alone — to the helm of the Barque of Peter.”
All of these thoughts and memories swirled through my mind as I made my way out of the piazza.
Although the beatification had ended, a new relationship had begun. Good servant, Blessed Paul VI, pray for us.
Jennifer Sokol writes from Shoreline, Washington.