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The Jungle

Given Over to Dreaming

On Pope Francis's general audiences.


There is a passage midway through Lord of the World in which Robert Hugh Benson gleefully describes a pre-apocalyptic Rome as the last backward city in Europe. In that Rome, “cardinals drove again in gilt coaches; the Pope rode on his white mule; the Blessed Sacrament went through the ill-smelling streets with the sound of bells and the light of lanterns.” There the Church has no care for speed, cleanliness, or precision. While the rest of Europe hurtles toward self-destruction, Rome remains as it always was. It is the incarnation of a world given over to dreaming.

The city does often seem to unfold at a dreamlike pace, at least for the pilgrim. This is in part because Rome, already densely built up on top of its own ruins, is also rather small; twenty centuries can be covered in the space of an hour. (The walk from the steps of the Ara Pacis, where Augustus established the empire in stone, to the Ara Coeli, where Gibbon conceived of his Decline and Fall, is less than twenty minutes.) But it is mainly because when in Rome, as is the case on all pilgrimages, time actually does move differently. What is important in daily life no longer applies, and the things that have taken its place are often confusing, physically taxing, and, for the more reluctant pilgrim, a bit annoying.

This becomes apparent immediately to those who attend one of the pope’s Wednesday general audiences. These audiences have occurred more or less weekly since the mid-1960s, when Paul VI made them a regular fixture of his schedule. Their point is to allow pilgrims from all over the world a chance to catch a glimpse of the pope and receive his blessing. During the winter, they are held indoors in a hall that can seat up to twelve thousand people. For the rest of the year, they occur in Saint Peter’s Square, and attendance often reaches the tens of thousands.

Because general audiences are so popular among pilgrims—and because seating in the square is limited to a few thousand plastic chairs—the Prefecture of the Papal Household, which runs the weekly event, makes getting in something of a chore. The Vatican’s website does not list any email address to which a pilgrim may send a note requesting tickets. Instead, there is a phone number and a street address. There is no guarantee that the phone will be picked up or that a letter will be answered. Under no circumstances will tickets be emailed or sent through the postal service. If the prefecture grants them—and sometimes it doesn’t—they must be picked up in Saint Peter’s Square the afternoon before the general audience or at 7:00 a.m. on the day it occurs.

Most pilgrims coming from the United States do not attempt to navigate this system. Instead, they contact the Pontifical North American College, which acts as an intercessor for Americans with the prefecture. This means that anyone seeking tickets must undergo a mini-pilgrimage to an office near the Trevi Fountain. Like the Vatican, the college requires that pilgrims pick up their tickets in person the day before the audience. An address is given, but the pilgrim is warned that the way is hard and requires special attention. These are the directions to the ticket office:

From the Trevi Fountain, facing it, look to the left and you will see the store “Giorgios.” Take the street to the left of the store, called Via Delle Muratte. Then, take the first left (after “Gelato Italiano”) onto Via Delle Vergini (the street sign is difficult to see). Follow Via Delle Vergini until you come to the crossing street Via Dell’Umiltà. Take a left onto Via Dell’Umiltà. On your right you will shortly see a large door with an arch over it, #30 (not 30a or 30b). There is a plaque that says “Casa Santa Maria.” That is our office!

Those who make it to Casa Santa Maria soon discover, however, that there is a third, unadvertised option for getting into a general audience. This is the easiest one, and the one that Pope Francis is said to favor: to despair of the bureaucracy and simply walk in without a ticket. The fact that this is even possible comes as a surprise to many pilgrims. Even after a few days in Rome, they are still unused to the fundamentally bitter, disenchanted, and melancholic qualities that underlie the vivacious surface of Italian life.

“But won’t they ask us for our tickets?” one American man asked a religious sister working the door on the day before a general audience in late April. “Oh, I don’t think so,” the nun replied, adding, darkly, “unless you look suspicious.” The man looked over at his wife, as if seeking her opinion: “Do we?” The nun glanced at them, scrutinizing their casual shirts and comfortable walking pants. They looked like they were off to hike Old Rag. “I would wear an Oxford shirt, if you have one,” she said.

Security in Saint Peter’s Square is serious, by Roman standards. There is a line leading to a checkpoint under Bernini’s colonnade where guards conduct bag checks and herd people through metal detectors. The line is filled mostly with students and large groups of pilgrims holding rosaries, prayer cards, and other devotional items for the pope to bless. Oftentimes the metal rosary beads set off the detector’s sensors, and the impatient guards wave the offender through with a grumble. As the line backs up, people unattached to a group circumvent the checkpoint by passing through one of the many unsecured sections of the colonnade. Not that it does them any good. They get seats no better than those who waited.

The audience itself is very much from the mind of Benson. Francis doesn’t ride a mule, but he has an almost pretentious disregard for pretense. When he zooms into Saint Peter’s Square in his convertible Mercedes G-Wagen—usually about fifteen minutes before the audience is slated to begin—he hardly slows down to wave or smile. The crowds press up against the fences all the same, reaching out for his touch. It is a parade of shoving, picture taking, and crying. Even those who count themselves critics of Francis (and there are always a few in the crowd) are swept up in the general fervor. He is the pope, after all.

It is widely agreed that there are only two ways to get Francis’s attention at a general audience. The first is to be a newly married couple. If you wear your wedding clothes, the Swiss Guard will take note and escort you to the front of the square where Francis will give you a special blessing. The second and much more common way is to have a baby on hand. Francis loves children, and when he sees a baby in the crowd he will sometimes request that the Mercedes stop so that he can give the child a kiss. Everyone with a baby hopes that the pope will kiss theirs, and, when Francis passes by, parents hold them aloft such that it appears that a school of babies are swimming above the crowd.

Once Francis ascends to the shaded dais overlooking the square, the crowd’s energy subsides. Vatican functionaries take over the proceedings, and read from a lectern in French, Italian, German, English, and whatever other languages are chosen for that day. Their voices echo all the way down the street to the river, where the traffic swallows every sound. Most people do not listen. Instead, they sit on the ground, talk among themselves, or play on their phones. Some watch the big, old televisions set up in the square broadcasting the event. The screens are often pixelated, and sometimes it is difficult to make out exactly what is happening.

Francis speaks, too, usually in Italian, and his voice rarely rises above a whisper. When he gives his blessing, it is as if it is a secret. At length he is helped down from the dais, and the crowds again press up against the fences, awaiting the Mercedes’s return. But the audience is over, and the pope is gone. Next week it will be the same. The dream goes on.

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