All cities are noisy, but Rome is one of the noisiest. In Rome one learns quickly to block the sound of late night public debate, and the buzzing of the appropriately named Vespas that fly down the streets well into the wee small hours. Otherwise, one does not sleep until 2 a.m. or later, when—for about four hours—Rome observes a grudging silence.
On the night preceding the beatification of Pope John Paul II, even that sense of restless quiet never came. Anticipating the crowds, city workers were closing down streets, taping routes for pilgrims and redirecting traffic in a generally festive mood, and by 3 a.m. I could hear the first youthful travelers pass by my window on the walk to St. Peter’s Square.
An hour later, caught up in the sense of joyful gathering, I stopped resisting and stepped out into the dewy, jasmine-scented air. There were no buses, no taxis to be had at this place and hour; the streets had been given over to security and so even the slow and arthritic became foot pilgrims for Peter, but no one seemed to mind.
As the happy possessor of both press credentials and a special ticket, I had my choice of two incredible loggia-views of the proceedings: left-loggia seated me with press, right-loggia with the faithful, most of them Polish or Italian. Seeking the human and emotional perspective, I chose “color” over comfort, and climbed to the right, where the hills of Rome—columns and cypress trees filtered through the rising mists—presented a soft, blurred pastel view that nearly stopped the heart and tongue alike. This is Roman silence I thought to myself a stilled moment, glimpsing the splendor of all that has come before.
Within a very short time, the bleachers filled. A minor turf war ensued between some grey-habited Polish nuns, who wished to be seated exactly where I was, and me (who wasn’t moving). We made a truce for the sake of shared warmth in the chill and damp, and when they pulled out their rosaries and softly chanted the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, I fingered my beads in a silent union.
Shortly before the solemn procession, a debate broke out in the stands. An exchange between two Italians became heated enough to turn heads, and when another voice rang out, “si, bellissimo!” in agreement with one gladiator, a few gentlemen in authority intervened.
Within moments a Swiss Guard appeared at the corner of our rows, where he remained throughout, his back turned away from the holy pageant taking place directly below. His attention was wholly trained on our stand, which his eyes scanned over and over again, while his body remained motionless, resisting even the shifts of muscle fatigue. A handsome, fit young man in medieval dress stood sentry, ready to respond to rashness or rage. He made his purpose clear in a perfect Swiss-Roman silence of stillness, and he was heard and understood.
At the pronouncement of the new beato and the unveiling of John Paul’s portrait, a shout of jubilation arose from the square, but in the loggia, the joy was low-key. The pope’s youthful image drew an appreciative gasp from the Italians, who nodded and murmured “vabene,” among themselves. From the Poles, not even that. They wiped their tears and crossed themselves and simply gazed in reverent awe, remembering a beloved countryman in palpable and soundless pride.
But the true Roman silence, the one I had presumed to recognize in the reveries of a morning mist, presented itself during the mass, when Pope Benedict XVI—while transparently holy as his predecessor, is the softly inviting piano counterpart to John Paul’s dramatic pipe organ—pronounced the words of Consecration over the bread and wine. Amid approximately a million and a half hungry and thirsty people gathered in one place, possessing different perspectives, of unequal understandings, there reigned in that moment a true unity; the gathering in Rome became a most perfect and complete center of silence. In the stillness, there was fullness, the quiescence of Eternity, the power of intention and expectation that anticipated and anticipates Creation.
”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And in that Roman silence of expectation, observed around the world, was the Gospel of new life, made manifest.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.