Did you ever think what it would be like to go to Rome to see the Pope do Christmas or Easter mass?  Even if you’re not religious, attending one of these events can be exciting.  And dangerous.

Having done both the Christmas Eve service and Easter Vigils I can say its worth fighting huge crowds and standing in long lines.  And sometimes it rains…and is very cold.  So then, what is the procedure and what should you expect?  First comes getting “tickets”, something I didn’t realize the first time (we actually wound up watching the service on local Vatican TV).

In order to get in line for Papal events you normally need to arrange for tickets in advance.  They are free and can be reserved through the Vatican website, or at St. Peters before the actual date.  Be aware they hand out lots of tickets…way more than the “seating” capacity of St. Peters.  So if you don’t get in line early, you won’t get into the basilica and might get a seat outside in the square (you can watch the service on big screen “pope TV’s”).  And even if you are in line early, and near the front of the line, you still might not avoid the crush and get a seat.  So why do I call it a crush?  Read on.

On our first trip to attend Christmas Eve mass, my wife and I were typical dumb tourists.  We figured all you had to do was show up early, stand in line, and get in.  So we arrived at 5pm for the service scheduled to start at 9pm.  It was cold and damp, as usual in Rome in December.  We took some snacks to keep us busy and hopefully a bit warmer.  And locating the rest rooms helped, too.  So we stand, eat, and talk with others.  Then reality hits.  We have no tickets…never heard of them.  Do they still offer them?  No.  Back to the hotel.  Maybe we can watch the service on TV.

A few years later we decided on another visit.  This time in April for Easter.  Some pre-planning scored 2 tickets which we could pick up 2 days before the Easter Vigil service.  We were assured we had figured out the process.  And besides, there were other Eastertime events we could see with little or no adance planning.  In fact we attended several Papal events at St John Lateran Basilica that rivaled the Vigil mass.  Smaller lines and no tickets.  But no seats…they all were saved for “special” folks.  And Friday night was maybe the best event.  At the Colloseum, the Pope leads “The Way of the Cross” from inside the Colloseum up the Palatine Hill.  The only catch is to arrive early to get a good vantage point.  I have my secret place and have gotten some great videos.

So back to the St. Peters crush.  With tickets in hand we head out to the Square to get in line for the Vigil Mass.  It starts at 9pm, so we arrive at 5pm.  They have barracades setup like a maze near the metal detectors.  At the entrance to the maze they have some additional wooden barracades in a line maybe 50 feet long.  This area is already full so we are lucky to get a spot where I can easliy get to rest rooms with my wife “holding” my spot.  This works OK for the first hour.  But the crowds swell and the line gets not only longer but wider.  After 7pm its almost impossible to leave your spot and get back in.  Oh well at least we have secured a close in location.  And we get to talk with lots of people and make some friends.

As the next 2 hours go by, the “line” becomes a jam packed crowd.  Tighter and tighter.  Now we can’t even move our arms to reach into our pockets.  Forget about eating anything, or even attempting to make a rest room visit.  We are locked in.  And idiots are climbing over the barracades.  Where are the cops?  This looks like trouble in the making.

As we get close to the time when they open the gates, we decide that our survival is more important than trying to stay together.  When the heard breaks loose, we should do our individual best to get through the metal detectors and meet up on the other side.  Wise choice.  But we still underestimate the task ahead.

I’ve never been involved with such a situation where I felt I had no control.  When the gates open its a free for all.  No way could you not get carried along with the heard.  And if you fell I’m not sure how you would survive.  And these are supposed to be religious “Christians” showing love for their fellow man?  Bunch of animals.  Where are the cops.  Where is the crowd control?

Bruised, exhausted, and sweaty I finally get through the metal detectors to safety.  My wife and I reconnect, and breath a sigh of relief.  Is that what a religious experience feels like?  So off we hurry into the Basilica.  Now to find a seat.  Funny I thought we were at the front of the line.  Pretty much the last row.  At least we can sit for a while.  The service begins and we thank God for being alive.  The rest of the night was awesome and maybe worth the crush.  Now, next time if we can just score better seats….

Written on January 15th, 2010 , Anicdotes, Travel Tips

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