It is a foggy winter night. Fog is rather unusual in Rome, but this time it has slowly mounted, progressively obscuring the stars and the full moon shining over the Cupolone, the gigantic dome of St Peter’s Basilica.
A small group of about 20 civilians has gathered by the crush barriers, watched by soldiers, policemen and carabinieri. They are spending this January night outdoors, waiting to be the first to enter St Peter’s Square.
Tomorrow morning, they will attend the funeral service of Pope Benedict XVI. They have come from around the world to spend a chilly night under the stars in order to be as close as possible to the coffin of the emeritus Pope.
Most of them have never met before, but the occasion favours friendship. None is willing to sleep, except a small group of lively Spaniards who came with sleeping bags and mats and jokes. They bedded down on the marble pavement of via della Conciliazione.
A tiny Italian nun who lives as a hermit near Assisi is defying the frigid air. She stamps her feet against the cold and every hour or so she asks her new friends to sing a Christmas carol or some Gregorian chant. In the coldest hours of the night, she draws close to a girl she has just met; they share the girl’s pink blanket. She dozes slightly, her veiled head on the girl’s shoulder. They pray the Rosary together; the nun is a polyglot and prays one mystery in Aramaic, one in Hebrew, one in French, one in English, one in Italian, one in Latin, and so on. (Yes, they are praying more than one rosary).
To their right, a thin German woman who came all the way from Düsseldorf prays almost all night long. She teaches the responses to a new companion, who speaks a little German but doesn’t know the prayers, and who tries to follow her in the chaplet of the Divine Mercy.
Close by, an Austrian girl has brought food enough for a dozen people and is kindly sharing it with those sitting by her. She draws from her Mary Poppins bag oranges, cookies, chocolates, and much more. She has a PhD in ancient Greek and is studying for a PhD in spiritual theology. PhDs abound. The girl with the pink blanket has one and is studying for another.
Several men are standing and taking short walks; one of them is a Romanian historian. He is dressed very formally and displays by his attitude the importance he attaches to tomorrow’s event. There is an atmosphere of intense prayer, participation, of composed emotion and of touching recollection.
Most of these people travelled all day long, some more. The journeys were improvised at the last minute, when news about Pope’s death emerged from the Vatican. None of them had ever exchanged a word with Benedict, but for all of them he is like a close relative. He was, or rather is, a spiritual father, a guide in their personal and spiritual lives.
At five o’clock, after a few more sweets have been exchanged, the police begin to open the Square. The pilgrims rise, stiff after so many hours sitting in the cold, and stand at the other side.
Getting even closer to each other, they begin to share memories of what Benedict represented for them. They remember his meekness, his humility, his simplicity, his kindly smile. They remember what he endured, the hostility he had to face, his courageous efforts to eradicate paedophilia and financial corruption, and his tireless engagement in the service of truth, even when this duty forced his somewhat shy nature to take unpopular positions.
Most importantly, they discuss the Pope’s spirituality, his life of prayer and sacrifice – which went well beyond his eight years in the Petrine ministry – and his continuing offering of himself for the Church he so passionately loved in the name of Jesus Christ.
The doors open.
The pilgrims – who, by now, have increased dramatically in number, including small groups of young nuns from all over the world – walk quickly toward the top of St Peter’s Square. It warms them up.
In a few hours, which they will spend praying or reading the Mass booklet, the funeral service will begin. By then, the Square will have become crowded with thousands and thousands of people, ranging from heads of state to humble Franciscan friars, from Knights of Malta to colourfully dressed Bavarians, from Cardinals to youth groups.
The atmosphere during the funeral is composed and intense. It transmits, wordlessly but very intensely, the deep meaning of death for Christians.
The solemnity and sacredness are palpable, tinged with a superhuman serenity. Those in St Peter’s Square mourn the loss of a loved one. Many of them believe that Benedict should be declared a saint and a doctor of the Church. But more importantly, they are confident that Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger is now with Christ – whom he professed to love with his last words – and this lends a perceptible joy to the funeral.
The morning is not sad or depressing. It is a homage and a farewell to a beloved father, who – everybody here believes it – is already praying for us.