Encounter With the Pope In Castel Gandolfo

What is it like to meet the Pope in his summer residence? Is it different from seeing him in general audiences or public Masses at St. Peter's?

Let me describe what you might experience on a typical Sunday morning in Castel Gandolfo.

After a half-an-hour car or bus ride through the highway and small town streets, you get to the hills of the Castelli Romani and the parking lot of Castel Gandolfo. Walking up the slope toward the town center, for many yards you will take shade from the imposing walls of the large apostolic palace on your right, while a breathtaking view of Lake Albano fills the vista on your left.

The lake speaks volumes of history — according to legend, Aeneas settled here after the destruction of Troy. But what you notice when you see it is God's beauty — the sky-blue placid waters are protected by small hills full of pine trees. Climbing the hill completes the pilgrim-like flavor of the journey.

If you get to the town's main square by 9:30 or 10 a.m., you will see between 150 and 250 pilgrims already queuing up in front of the orange, Renaissance-style facade of the papal palace. They chant and talk enthusiastically. Two Swiss Guards face them from the arched bronze door. The excitement has begun.

By 11 a.m., about 500 people cluster between the palace and the artistic stone fountain in the middle of the square. Half an hour later, 700 pilgrims merge with dozens of local parishioners coming out of Sunday Mass from the beautiful Baroque church of the square. Another 300 people or so queue up from the street that meets the palace from its left side.

Italian police and carabinieri are all over the place, yet an unusual calm reigns over the crowded square. People don't seem to mind waiting in the sun. They sing and chant in English, Polish, German and Spanish.

Ten minutes to noon, people cramp to get through the open doors after being checked by the police. In less than five minutes, everyone is in the palace courtyard. A huge awning protects us from the sunrays. People's exploring looks show that most of them have never been here.

By noon, the Holy Father comes out from the front door and goes up to a wooden stage. For a couple of minutes, people's cheers and claps return the affection of the Pope's smiles and waving of his hand.

John Paul II begins his Sunday midday meditation. Adults, children, young men and women gaze at him reverently and silently, as if they all understood Italian. After the address, the Holy Father greets representative groups of pilgrims in Italian, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German and Polish.

When the speaking ends, more songs, claps and cheers of “Long live the Pope!” resound. In exchange, the Pope waves his hands and smiles more widely. This “dialogue” lasts for several minutes until the Holy Father is wheeled into his apartments.

Doesn't it all look like a Pope's ordinary audience in Rome?

Not really. I found three differences.

First, the Holy Father himself looks different. His relaxed time in the summer residence shows in a healthier face and a stronger voice. On the other hand, since he meets the faithful less often than in Rome, he seems to enjoy these encounters more. He shows no rush. It looks like he has missed the pilgrims, as a father misses his children in a trip overseas. And the physical closeness to people allows him to interact with them more easily.

The second difference regards the faithful. Since meeting the Pope at Castel Gandolfo implies a great deal of knowledge, effort and ingenuity (especially if you don't have a car), everyone in this audience is more pilgrim than tourist. No wonder people's voices and faces never tire of being excited.

The setting is different, too. Yes, we miss the glorious splendor of St. Peter's Basilica, but we also get to skip the hustle and bustle of crowds and traffic. In a small courtyard the encounter is less ceremonial and more informal.

Finally, waving a hand or a flag to the Pope three hundred yards away is not the same as waving up close. The otherworldly feeling of being so close to the Vicar of Christ is deeply moving.

The encounter is, so to speak, more “human,” more relaxing. It is less of a teaching moment and more of a get-together.

The Son of God knew well we all needed some vacations. After the Apostles worked hard preaching the good news in many villages, “he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while’” (Mark 6:31). To me, meeting the Holy Father in Castel Gandolfo is like going to a deserted place and resting a while with Jesus.

Legionary of Christ Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome [email protected]