Isabel Dubert, Contributing Writer
Along with the rest of the world a week ago Monday morning, the spring Rome class of 2013 was engulfed by a tide of shock, surprise and sadness upon hearing of the resignation of their dear Pope Benedict XVI.
Shortly after, they were greeted by another wave of disappointment when their acting chaplain Fr. David Brown, SJ, announced that they would not in fact be so fortunate as to watch the papal procession to the Church of Santa Sabina from the North American College campus with Fr. Thomas Esposito, O. Cist., a monk from the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.
But when the students realized that they could attend the pope’s last celebrated Mass in the Vatican, at St Peter’s, the unbridled joy they exuded rose to unparalleled heights.
A few of the students who attended Pope Benedict’s last Mass were asked to recall the scene as they experienced it inside St Peter’s and describe it as best they could.
Sophomore Caroline Jenkins commented, “How do you describe hearing the pope’s last Mass? It’s been more than 600 years since the public has been given the knowledge that the Mass they were going to is the last that their weary pope would ever give. How can you describe that feeling?
“My experience was summed up by a simple black-and-white sign that I saw a tearful family holding after Mass. ‘We will miss you.’ The experience of being inside the church that is at the center of the faith, listening to thousands of people shout “Viva il papa” is one that I will never forget. I’ve never met the pope, but in that Mass I felt as strongly for him as if he were my own parish priest. I’d never met him, but that night it was hard for me to say goodbye. Viva il papa.”
Non-Catholics as well were touched by the pope’s witness and message that day. A Protestant who was able to attend the mass along with many of her Catholic classmates was particularly struck by his physical appearance.
She remarked, “The Mass was absolutely wonderful. It was beautiful and I loved every moment of it (even if I couldn’t understand most of it), but my strongest reaction was one of sympathy for Pope Benedict XVI and how fragile he seemed. His strength was gone. He had trouble climbing up the stairs and even walking, but any man in his 80s would find stairs difficult.
“After hearing him speak, however, and lead us in Mass, there was no doubt in my mind that he made the correct decision in stepping down: He would get so exhausted just by talking in short bursts that another, younger cardinal had to step in and read Benedict’s responses.
“How could anyone look at him and say, ‘No, you have to fight until your dying day. You have got to keep the whole of Christendom on your shoulders without a rest.’ He was so … tired. Exhausted. Failing of health. And in no way did I think he should have stayed if the Holy Spirit had granted him leave.”
Doubtless everyone inside the Basilica perceived this frailty in its full reality, but what struck the UD students present even more was the pope’s humble holiness, his unpretentious and yet faith-filled simplicity and love. He did not distract the congregation with undue attention directed toward himself. Rather, he drew them upward to focus on the Sacrifice of Christ.
“While I’m not sure Benedict and I would share many of the same natural interests, I doubt that there is anyone I would be more comfortable having a conversation with,” said Kevin Fitzpatrick.
“The connection that I feel with Benedict is not the easiest thing to put into words, but I believe that the majority of the people in the Basilica would agree at least somewhat with me. Despite the cultural and age differences between most people and the pope, the one connection, and truly the only important connection between everyone at the Mass and the pope, is a love for Christ. While it is more perfected in many of the cardinals and the pope himself, it exists in all of us.
“In the same way that countless young athletes would feel extremely connected to one of their sports idols, all who proclaim Christ as Lord do not feel any disconnect between themselves and one who is further along the road of holiness than they are.
“There is no way for me to prove Benedict’s holiness, but I can assure you that it was felt in the Basilica on Ash Wednesday. During the Consecration, I have never felt such a focus on the Eucharist. Complete silence filled St. Peter’s, as no one was even aware of the presence of the pope due to his disappearance in humility. The ability to take the focus off of himself and have all glory given to God is to me one of the surest signs of Benedict’s holiness.”
Having read from Pope Benedict’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy last semester for a paper on the Christian tradition, Kevin had reflected earlier on, “Although [the pope] believes that the Mass should be celebrated facing East, he explains that there is nothing more harmful to the liturgy than constant change.
“He therefore proposes that instead of going back to how the Mass was celebrated until Vatican II, a crucifix should be placed on the altar so that the Priest may keep his eyes on the crucified Christ during the Eucharistic prayer in order to not lose sight of who the prayer is directed toward. I was able to see Pope Benedict put this into practice at the Papal Mass.
“I could not help but weep at the Elevation of the Host. Although Pope Benedict is the most famous living priest in the Church, his humility and holiness placed all of the focus on Christ during the Consecration. He was not looking at the congregation, and the congregation was not looking at him. They both had their eyes fixed on Christ in one of the most beautiful liturgies I have ever experienced.”
Sophomore Theresa Sawczyn commented on the experience, “Many students waited in line for hours, excited to celebrate Mass with the Holy Father. The day marked an ushering in of a new season of Lent and the end of Benedict’s papacy. The atmosphere inside St. Peter’s Basilica was both heavy and full hope for the future, a mixture of sorrow that the Holy Father is leaving and the certainty that the Church will continue with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as she has for centuries.
“And on this Wednesday Good Friday came early, with its usual contrasts of solemnity and tears and the excitement of a new day. Even in suffering there is renewal.”
Sophomore Selena Puente wrote as she reflected back on that day, “Even standing in line to see the pope at his last celebrated mass, the excitement in the air to see Papa Benedict was undeniable.
“Even as we shuffled into the Church, our spirits were mounting and I was still in disbelief of what was happening. When I saw the Pope for the first time, I wanted to weep out for joy – and when I looked to my classmates I saw an equal amount of elation in their eyes.
“It was difficult to fully absorb what was happening: we were at St Peter’s Basilica to see the pope’s last Mass. Even repeating that phrase to myself didn’t convince me of the reality I was living in.”
Many who would later be talking about and discussing their experiences could not but end with sentiments similar to hers: “Viva Roma, and rock on Pope Benedict!”