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A Baptist at the Vatican

FROM OUR POSITION IN THE VIP SECTION WE COULD LOOK OUT OVER THE THOUSANDS THRONGING ST PETER’S SQUARE EAGERLY AWAITING THE POPE-MOBILE’S ARRIVAL. Flags from various nations waved in the hot morning air, including many red-and-white Polish banners. A jazz band struck up popular tunes in front of the crowd-control barriers at the bottom of a slope leading up to a large canopy prepared for the official party.

Backdrop to the whole festive scene was the massive classical fa√ßade of St Peter’s Cathedral, the global centre of the Roman Catholic Church. Ironically, indulgences sold to raise money for the construction of this building had helped catalyse the Reformation and the division of the western church. Watching over the square from the roofline high above us, flanking a Christ-figure in the centre, stood a row of marble saints clasping crosses, swords and spears. St Peter himself looked down towards the site of his own upside-down crucifixion.

The crowds below had come from around the world to see Peter’s latest successor as Bishop of Rome and vicar of Christ. Other bishops and cardinals with red and scarlet caps respectively filed through the central doors of St Peter’s towards reserved chairs under the canopy. A Vatican official walked to the rostrum and in several languages began to read out the names of groups visiting from around the world, prompting cheers from all around the square.

A children’s choir entertained the waiting faithful with the Hallelujah Chorus. Swiss guards, armed with spears and dressed in sixteenth-century costumes (designed by Michelangelo), took up positions in front of the canopy. Twenty-first century men-in-black silently materialised, a signal of the imminent appearance of the pope-mobile.

Frankly I felt like a Baptist gate-crasher at a Catholic party. I was there as a guest-speaker on the ecumenical ‘Focolare Trail’, which had brought us from Trent via Florence to Rome. Yet how those thousands waiting on the lower level would love to have my ‘ringside’ seat! This day would be a highlight of their lives. Behind us sat a row of young Nigerian priests murmuring excitedly among themselves. To the left was a section reserved for bridal couples, dressed in full wedding regalia, awaiting a nuptial blessing ‚Ķ

Yet as I reflected on my being there through no initiative of my own,three areas came to mind in which we Protestants could learn from our Catholic friends:
· A sense of continuity and connectedness– these ‘pilgrims’ were getting in touch with their historical roots, while most Protestants seem to believe God had been on vacation from the time of Paul until Luther. We have very little sense of history and continuity, and short memories breed short-sightedness.
· A global consciousness – those surrounding me here were aware of being part of a global family, a Church which transcended tribalism and nationalism; a Church which had held Europe together in a European space which the Reformation fragmented into territorialism.
· The place of movements – the Catholic Church has made room for movements and orders as instruments of renewal, service and reform, in addition to parishes. Such movements were well represented in St Peter’s this day, and many others had had a special audience with the pope in this same square over Pentecost.

Suddenly an excited cheer went up from the crowd to our right. Young people rushed to the barriers as the white vehicle slowly came into view, moving across the square and eventually climbing the slope towards us and the canopy. A few paces in front of us, the elderly figure in white stepped straight from the pope-mobile to a large pontifical chair. He waved shyly in response to the cheers and cries of “Benedict! Benedict!” from young fans.

To the hushed audience, he then commenced reading a five-minute message-in six different languages-about the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, when the first church agreed to receive gentile believers. A short prayer later, the formalities were over and a line of bishops quickly formed to greet the Holy Father.

Before I realised it, a small pelaton surrounding the pope had moved across towards us under the shade of an umbrella escort. My friend Ton Jongstra, leader of the Focolare Movement in Holland, urged me to get a copy of my book out of my bag to give to Benedict as he came by. Was he serious? The next moment, Ton had caught the passing pope’s attention and introduced me to him. “Hope!” the stooped man before me exclaimed, as he squeezed my hand and inspected the book’s title: Living as people of hope. “Yes, that’s what we need!” he said, pausing before moving on towards the waiting bridal couples.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

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