There probably is no other place in the world where you meet people from so many different countries and diverse cultures as in St Peter’s Square. It is a cause of continuing astonishment for me to see how many people come to St Peter’s Square at midday every Sunday to pray the Angelus prayer with Pope Francis. What moves so many people to go there every Sunday in bright sunshine or pouring rain? Is it an experience? And the youth who greet the Pope with loud banners and meet at the fountains later in the evening to listen to the street musicians?
Rome, and in particular ‘the Church’, these are subjects I am continually questioned about. What is really being asked has a lot to do with faith, really. When I ask: have you visited Rome before? Have you ever been on pilgrimage, or attended a general audience of the Pope? Most people will answer in the negative, because they never had the opportunity, or because they are not really interested or are content to watch such an event on TV.
Pilgrimage is an enduring feature of Christian life. In the early days of Christianity many people wanted to go to Jerusalem to enkindle their faith by visiting the Holy Places. Through the centuries a dazzling variety of places of pilgrimage has emerged and many people are also attracted to come to Rome to visit the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul.
I remember a phrase of Martin Buber: “God does not so much want us to believe in Him, to debate and defend Him, as for us to ‘experience’ him”. Pope Francis puts is similarly: we do not foster our faith by reading learned books on theology, but by daily engaging with people and attending to their needs and concerns.
That must be the reason why people have gone on pilgrimage and will continue to do so. It happens that people who visit the Roman excavations for the first time are disappointed. Is this all Rome has to offer: ancient ruins? When subsequently I take them on a tour of St Peter’s Square and the Basilica they brighten up: here there is life, beauty, the old stones have come to life. Here you meet the future. The future does not live in stones and ancient buildings, but in what touches people deep in their hearts, faith experiences that will stay with them when they return to their places of origin, to their parishes and churches, be they young or old, rich or poor. The Kingdom of God is can be reached and experienced whenever and wherever we open our hearts to Jesus, also here in Rome.
Fr Sepp Schmölzer mhm