I volunteered to be part of the “human barricade” in one of the scheduled events during the current papal visit to my country. Our job was to stand behind the row of policemen along the route the Pope would take to the Meeting with Families – partly to prevent the crowd from breaking into the Pope’s path and getting unruly, partly to create a welcoming atmosphere for the Pope.
Although the Pope was expected to pass by along the route at around 5:00 in the afternoon, we were asked to arrive at the site as early as 8:00 in the morning. We whiled the time away watching video footages of the other papal events, listening to the news over a handheld radio, reading, and socializing with each other. Despite the inconvenience of waiting the whole day in tropical weather, it was a joyful wait, as we encountered a lot of our friends who also volunteered to be part of the human barricade. There was sense of solidarity even with people we don’t know – soon the entire crowd was doing coordinated hand waves, and some older people beside us asked us to teach them our “Papa Francesco” cheers.
Excited built up as the time of the Pope’s arrival drew near. From where I stood I could not see the action up front; I felt like Zaccheus who, because he was short in stature, had to climb a sycamore tree to see Christ amidst the crowd. I relied on auditory cues to find out if the Pope had already arrived. There were several false alarms, as when a media camera focused on one part of the crowd triggered rounds of cheering and waving.
Finally, the Pope did pass by. I resigned myself to not being able to see him, but just the same I waved my flaglet as hard as I could and screamed “Viva il Papa!” as loud as I could, satisfied that these efforts would contribute to a welcoming atmosphere for the Pope. But I did get to see him in profile for a fleeting second, and even if it was not the best view, I felt exhilarated.
Our group lingered for a while to watch what went on during the Meeting with Families, which was being projected outside the venue on a big screen. We listened to his beautiful address. After the event, we transferred places so as to be able to see him on his way out; although this time I did not get to see him; all I got to see was the roof of the Popemobile. The others in my group were able to, however, and this time he was facing our direction. Again, it was for fleeting seconds, but we were ecstatic for the whole night afterwards.
When the papal visit was announced, I resigned myself to not being able to see him, consoling myself with the thought that what matters is to listen to his words. Yet here I was, contending with the crowd for even just a fleeting glance at him, which is often the only reward of “pope-chasing” efforts during papal visits. Why do people still put up with the inconveniences of “pope-chasing” for a brief papal apparition? What effect does the mere physical presence of the pope have on people?
I learned the answers watching video footage of popes waving to crowds from their Popemobiles. I can’t help but wonder what they think when they wave back at enthusiastic crowds waving at them. Each of them have their own ways of showing it, but I’m sure their sentiments are the same as those of Christ, Who, upon seeing the crowds, had compassion for them for they are like sheep without a shepherd. Perhaps popes feel a bit sad, too, when they see the crowds, which probably remind them of the crowds that followed Christ throughout his public ministry, cheered him on Palm Sunday, yet, upon being prodded by their leaders, clamoured for his death on Good Friday. Doubtless, like Christ, they want to gather the crowds as a hen gathers her brood, but the crowd “wouldst not”.
Indeed, just as Christ is an image of God the Father, the pope, as the visible head of the Church, is “sweet Christ on earth”. He is a tangible symbol of Christ’s love for His flock, which He has not left unattended. This is why just the momentary sight of him, the mere awareness of being in his physical presence, brings so much joy and peace and grace – for an encounter with him is, in a way, an encounter with Christ.
Perhaps among those enthusiastically waving at the pope as he passes by are those who see him nothing more than a celebrity who has made a touchdown to our shores. Perhaps for others, being in a crowd where the pope will pass by is just all in a day’s work – like the policemen who have to control the crowds, or the snack hawkers hoping to sell food. But just the same, the presence of the pope is, for everyone, an encounter with Christ. An encounter with Christ, no matter how brief, never leaves one indifferent.