Heidi Sierras had the experience of a lifetime: The California mother was baptized, confirmed, and received Communion from Pope Benedict XVI.
Sierras was one of five people from around the world to receive the sacraments from the Pope during the Easter Vigil at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. She was the sole representative from the Americas to receive the privilege. She spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake about the experience and what it feels like to be a new Catholic.
Tell me about your preparations for the Easter Vigil.
We practiced what we were to do a couple of times. It was a little difficult because the two priests who were demonstrating what we were going to be doing didn’t speak English very well. After the second time around, I got the hang of it. We were done about 11 a.m. We had to be back at St. Peter’s at 7:30 p.m. The five of us being baptized sat right up near the altar, two on one side of the aisle and the other three of us on the other side of the aisle.
What was the Easter Vigil like?
I was so nervous that my heart was pounding and I felt like everyone could see me shaking. Yet, when I went up to be baptized, I looked at the Pope and it was overwhelming. I kind of wanted to look away, but couldn’t. It was like he was piercing you with his eyes.
I leaned my head over the baptismal font, and he poured water on my head three times. Afterwards, I was given a white shawl to put around my shoulders and a 3-foot-tall baptismal candle. I carried the candle with me throughout the rest of the Mass.
After I was baptized, I felt so calm and at peace. I felt like I was floating through the rest of the Mass and wasn’t nervous at all.
For confirmation, he anointed the crown of my head with oil. It was quite fragrant. Afterward, everyone wanted to kiss my head.
For holy Communion, we knelt on a kneeler before the Pope and received the host, which had been dipped into the cup.
It wasn’t until after I had received Communion and returned to my pew to kneel in prayer that I broke down and started crying. I felt a feeling of completeness. Always before when I had attended Mass, I felt an emptiness. I couldn’t fully participate in Mass and receive Jesus, who I had been longing to receive. Once I was able to receive him, I felt complete.
Did the Holy Father exchange any words with you?
Yes, when I brought up the gifts and knelt before him, he held my hands. “So, you’re the one from America?” he asked. I replied, “Yes.” He said, “Oh, good; it’s nice to meet you.”
One of the neat things was that after the Easter Vigil we processed out and went into a side room near the “Pietà,” where the Pope was. There, I was able to shake his hand and kiss his ring. He said something to me in Italian that I couldn’t understand. At that time, I was given my baptismal certificate and a rosary.
What did family or friends say to you afterward?
My daughter kept commenting that I looked different. She said, “I can’t put my finger on it, but you look different in your eyes. You look happy.”
After the Mass, when I walked out of St. Peter’s, everyone was outside in the plaza waiting. My husband was in tears. People were welcoming me to the Church. Some people hugged me. Others were crying. It was a moment of tremendous happiness and joy.
Aside from the Easter Vigil, were there any other highlights?
The Passion service was one of my favorites. The cross was covered with a cloth, and the Pope unveiled it. When the Pope went up to venerate the cross, they took everything off of him — including his shoes — except for his alb, and then he went up and kissed the cross. That was a neat thing to see. Seeing the Pope stripped of everything was really emotional. It was like he was so exposed. Spiritually, it was incredible.
I understand that your time of celebration was also marked with sorrow.
Yes, my father passed away before we left on our trip. He wanted to be cremated, so they waited until after I got back and had a service for him. Sorrow and joy seem to go together.
What did you do while you were in Rome?
We visited a lot of churches. We took a bus tour of the Forum and saw the Colosseum. We visited St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls. We also visited the catacombs.
Our parish priest, Father Joseph Illo, celebrated Mass in the catacombs. It was dark, damp and humid, but it was really incredible.
Being with all of the saints and martyrs kind of solidifies your faith. Seeing the tombs and knowing what people went through for their faith was quite an experience. I wish that everyone could go there and experience that.
We also visited the Scala Sancta — the marble stairs before Pilate that Jesus climbed and that St. Helena had brought to Rome.
The stairs are covered with wood to protect them, but there’s an opening on each so that as you climb the stairs on your knees in prayer you can reach down and touch each step. Early during Holy Week I was able to climb the stairs and pray.
Tim Drake writes from
St. Joseph, Minnesota.