Thursday, September 4, 2008



After waiting about 30 minutes, activity began on the stage. A trickle of visiting bishops and Vatican dignitaries made their way gradually to the rows of seating on the stage. This was to the right of a single chair in the middle which was obviously reserved for the Pope.

At the same time, a few serious-looking gentlemen in dark suits began to take up position, while five colourfully uniformed Swiss guards ringed the stage. Anticipation grew, then the side door opened and Pope Benedict the Sixteenth shuffled onto the stage with his slight stoop, shy smile and red Prada shoes. The audience erupted with cheering and got to its feet, which was perfect since the first thing he did was lead us in a prayer.

The business of the audience then began. First, we got a reading about St Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus - in Italian, French, English, Spanish and Polish in succession. Then the Pope read out a roughly 8 minute reflection on the reading - all in Italian!

All was not lost however. A French prelate came to the microphone to acknowledge all of the pilgrimage groups from France, each cheering in turn, and getting a wave and a smile from the Pope. He then handed a summary of the reflection in French to the Pope, who read it out. Next came the turn of the English-speakers. The conference I am attending was called out, and we responded with an anaemic academic wave and a pigeon-chested cheer. No bellows of 'Benedetto' or 'viva I'll Papa' unfortunately.

We went through all of the languages this way. Two nationalities stood out: the Germans and the Poles. I recently read that church music is better in Germany than anywhere else, and it shows. Most German groups struck up a choir performance of a couple of verses when their name was called, and they were all excellent. One group even managed to bring in two trombones for accompaniment (I have no idea how). On the other hand the Polish groups were just incredibly noisy, yelling their heads off in approval when they were called out. The occasional singing wasn't bad, but not as good as the Germans.

The whole atmosphere was festive and good-natured, but serious where appropriate.

Once this phase was over, the Pope led us in a Latin recitation of the Our Father, followed by a Papal blessing which he assured us extended to our families as well.

The final act was his official welcome of the prelates and the blessing of the disabled and sick, who crossed the stage one after another in a convoy of wheelchairs. After this, he moved down towards the crowd and shook hands with a lot of people, including our conference organiser.

At this stage the Pope was being mobbed, and all I could see was a little white hat bobbing up and down in a sea of people. So I decided I was finished, and walked out to St Peter's Square again.

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