ROME — There were seven steps. I counted. For much of the time Pope Francis, together with the cardinals of the church, presided over Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday morning, this reporter having put aside his press credentials and instead wearing a priest’s stole, stood in the front row at the base of the basilica’s main altar.
Thanks to the kindness of newly elevated Cardinal Gerald Lacroix and a good bit of Irish luck, my time in Rome covering the consistory ended in the most special way. Suffering from the effects of a series of late-night filing deadlines for this newspaper, and from a seemingly endless stream of early mornings, I sat quietly in meditation for much of the Papal Mass — that is of course, until someone tapped my shoulder.
Not thinking much of it, I lifted my head. The tap came again and was followed by a rapid stream of words in Italian, which left me even more confused. What I did understand was the frantic hand motions that soon followed. Before I knew it, my entire row was ushered forward to the very bottom of the stairs that led just seven stairs up to Pope Francis standing behind the main altar.
For the 20 minutes that I remained there, surround by other priests including Father Charlie Pawlowski of Bedford, Fathers Richard Dion and Paul Montminy of Manchester, and Father Ray Labrie of Litchfield, I remained in quiet prayer, and incredible awe.
Awe at being at Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in its fullest expression of universality, with cardinals, bishops and pilgrims from around the world, awe in the responsibility being given, and awe at the fact that I was so close to the Pope that I could tell you under his robes he was wearing black pants and you could see the backs of his shoes were wearing down.
As I stood holding a ciborium, deep in prayer, and wondering if my mother was watching on television, the hand gestures returned again and I was being ushered past Cardinal Lacroix, and right down St. Peter’s central aisle.
Not knowing where I was heading, I simply followed through the Swiss Guards and out the front doors to St. Peter’s Square to a crowd of tens of thousands, many of whom were waiting to receive Holy Communion. Not long after the distribution of Communion ended, and I returned to the Basilica, the Mass concluded and the Pope processed out, led by the church’s cardinals.
By noon, the Holy Father was high above St. Peter’s Square to lead the Angelus, a traditional Catholic prayer, to a crowd that had spilled out of the square and numbered over 75,000.
Following the Angelus, Cardinal Lacroix’s family and friends proceeded to the final event of their pilgrimage to Vatican City, a special reception hosted by the delegation of Quebec in Rome.
Undoubtedly exhausted from the week’s events Cardinal Lacroix remained in jovial spirits, savoring his time with those who had shared in his journey. Among those present were Gavin Henning of Pembroke, who attended with his wife, Terri, a teacher at Trinity High School.
Asking Gavin what impressed him the most about the events that preceded, he answered without hesitation: “This morning, the day after he became cardinal, after a brutally exhausting week, and night spent greeting thousands of well-wishers, Cardinal Lacroix upon entering the Basilica before Mass walked straight to my wife to wish her a happy birthday. Saying ‘I saw on Facebook it was your birthday yesterday; sorry my wishes are late, but happy birthday!’”
One of Quebec’s largest daily newspapers ran a headline this week that referred to Cardinal Lacroix as the “People’s Bishop.” Indeed, he is. Even amidst the busiest day of his life, Cardinal Lacroix kept up with Facebook, and remembered to stop to acknowledge a good friend.
If you were to ask me what struck me most about my time in Rome covering this story, it would not be the incredible beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica, nor the pageantry of the church, or the crowds that descended this week, it would be the incredible beauty of one man’s love for his church, and for his family.
Cardinal Lacroix captured that love in his final words, at the last celebration he shared, when before a crowded room of family, friends and diplomats, he closed his remarks in his native French, saying “Mom and dad, this red hat also belongs to you.”
With a characteristic smile, Cardinal Lacroix pulled out of the podium a miniaturized red biretta and presented it to his parents. As the crowd roared in approval of his gift, many an eye filled with tears for one of Manchester’s own who had risen so high, yet never let his feet leave the ground.