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Friday, January 4, 2008

Chrstmas Eve at the Vatican...

On Christmas Eve day we all walked from our apartment to the Vatican. It took about 50 minutes and is a walk of about about 2 miles. We got there at about noon, and after looking around the square for a few minutes we began to look for the office where we could get the tickets to midnight mass that we had reserved. I had my letter from the Vatican that confirmed our tickets and gave the general location of the office.

It became apparent that we would have to go through security to reach the office so Danny and I got in a line of about 100 while Kathy and Noah waited in the square. I had assumed that just about everyone in line was there to get their tickets to midnight mass as well, but after going through the metal detectors everyone else proceeded into St. Peter's basilica, and that's not where we needed to go. After asking another security guard about the office and showing him the letter, he pointed to its location, just to the right of the basilica as you face it. There was a double glass door at the top of a long set of stairs, with two Swiss guards in full regalia standing watch.

I first showed my letter to two Italian guards who allowed me, but not Danny, to head up the stairs. There, one of the two Swiss guards examined my letter and then opened the glass doors and into a long hallway where he pointed me to the third door on the right.

I entered the office and found a relatively small room - about 20 feet square - manned by a single individual. He stood behind a row of tables upon which sat boxes and boxes of envelopes. There was a nun in a white habit talking to this gentleman and I waited for her to finish. On my right there were two chairs where a man and woman sat patiently. It appeared that perhaps their paperwork was not in order (maybe they forgot to bring their letter) and were waiting to acquire tickets to mass.

The nun finished her conversation, in Italian, with the man behind the tables and I stepped up. I handed him my letter from the Vatican and it took him about 30 seconds to find an envelope with my name from one of the several boxes. He handed it to me and I went to leave, pausing just long enough to open the envelope and verify that it contained four tickets. It did.

I collected Danny at the bottom of the stairs and we went to find Kathy and Noah to continue our sightseeing. It was not quite 1 PM so we had a full day ahead of us before returning to St. Peter's at the recommended time of 9:00 - a full three hours before the start of midnight mass.

We arrived back to St. Peter's square a few minutes after 9:00 and there were already thousands of people in the square. We saw a line and started walking towards its end to take our place in line. We walked and walked and didn't see the end, and then noticed that it went all the way around the large square and then coiled inward, like a spring. We found what looked like the end but weren't quite sure so we asked a group of people in front of us, who were Americans. They thought it was the end of the line, but they weren't 100% sure. Then another group of Americans took their place in line behind us and asked us if this was the line for people with tickets. Danny decided to go out scope things out and returned a few minutes later confirming we were in the right spot.

The line was not moving forward but people continued to line up behind us until it had circled the square a second time. We chatted with those around us and Noah went to sit by the fountain that was in the middle of the square. I found it interesting that there did not seem to be anyone from either the Vatican or Italian police to help with the organization of the line. Everything just seemed to happen on its own (quite amazing, really).

With this satellite picture of St. Peter's you can see the fountain in the middle of the square and picture how the line went around the outside of the square and coiled inwards.

A little after 10 PM we could see that people were now going through security and entering St. Peter's basicila. Finally, the line started moving - very slowly. We moved towards where people were being screened for security but we then the line moved away to make the second trip around the square. By 11:15 we were moving closer to getting in but we could tell it would be close. Also by this time there were at least a thousand people, and maybe lots more, behind us.

We continued moving until we got about 30 feet from the entrance to security when the line stopped. At first we weren't concerned since the line had stopped many times over the last 90 minutes. But the line didn't move for 15 minutes and then we noticed that people were no longer entering the basilica. One of the Americans in front of us walked up to check and came back with a report that they weren't letting anyone in now as the church might be full, but they may allow more people in later. By the way, the capacity of St. Peter's basilica is 60,000 people.

After another 10 minutes, at about 11:45, Danny went up front to check and came back to let us know that no one was in the security line and that metal detectors were not manned. Others around us said that no one else would be allowed inside as the church was full.

I finally went to the front myself and confirmed what Danny had found - it certainly looked like they were done processing people through security. There were a few police/guards inside the security area and they were getting harassed by people waiving their green tickets, asking why they couldn't get in if they had tickets. Someone with a red ticket caught the attention of one of the police and he motioned them to a separate entrance where they entered after showing a second guard their red ticket. Obviously, the red tickets were for VIP types.

There were three large TVs set up in the square and they came on about 11:30. A choir sang hymns and a cantor, in English, asked for those inside to pray in preparation for the start of the service. The mass actually began a little early, about 11:55.

The square was filling with people who were coming just to watch the mass on the big screen televisions. Literally hundreds were pouring in by the minute. But even at 12:15, and well into the mass, the line of green ticket holders was still formed and in place. Even those a hundred yards and 1,000 people from the front of the line did not leave the line. There was absolutely no evidence that more worshippers would be let in, but it appears that hope springs eternal, especially at St. Peter's on Christmas Eve.

The four of us eventually left the line to sit on some stairs at the back of the square and watch the mass on TV. Our legs were exhausted from standing for over 3 hours and from the walking we had done all across Rome all day - we probably walked 10 miles that day.

It was a beautiful mass, with angelic music and all of the pomp you would expect of Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican.

We walked the 2 miles back to our apartment and were amazed at how many people were on the streets. This was nothing like Minnesota (and the entire US) when everything is closed after about 6 PM on Christmas Eve and doesn't open again until the 26th. It was after 2 AM and restaurants were open! We didn't stop, though. We were too tired. We were very disappointed not to have gotten inside for the mass, but really what can you do? We were in Rome for Christmas and life was good.

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