Ash Wednesday with Pope Benedict XVI

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. One of my classmates read that Pope Benedict XVI would be celebrating mass at an old, nondescript church on the Aventine hill directly across the Tiber River from our residence area. It is a tradition for the Pope to process from San’Anselmo to Santa Sabina, both churches on the Aventine Hill.

The service was scheduled to start at 5:00 p.m., but since we didn’t know what the crowds were going to be like, we arrived at around 3:45. When we got there, we found out that you needed a ticket to be inside for the mass, but fortunately they had set up a large seating area outside with a closed-circuit feed of the mass inside displayed on a large screen. I noticed a group of 6-8 photographers and videographers congregated in an area near the entrance to the church, so I decided to hang out around them, perhaps at least to find out where I could get a good angle for the Pope’s arrival.

After 15 or 20 minutes of standing there and acting like I was supposed to be there, I was herded with the official (AP, Italian and US media outlets) photographers to the area in which we were allowed to stand when the Papal procession arrived. “Cool”, I thought, “they think I’m supposed to be here.” And sure enough, about 25 minutes after that, the procession began to make its way down the street, directly towards us.

After a large group of clergymen processed into the church, the Pope arrived on a small golf cart of sorts, within about 20′ of where I was standing. Normally the Pope makes the procession on foot, but because of his health, he was driven on the cart. We was quickly ushered into the church to complete the procession and I found my way to a seat with the rest of my classmates for mass.

The mass was the first Latin mass I had ever attended, although half of it was in Italian. Fortunately, they passed out booklets with the English translations and all of the proper responses. We received ashes, however, instead of being black they were white, and instead of being applied to the forehead, they were applied to the top of your head, in your hair. I’m not saying that churches in the U.S. are wrong, but if that is how the Pope does it, they might want to double check with someone.

After mass, the Pope exited directly into a black Mercedes-Benz, and rushed off with a large police escort. We thought about trying to find a fish fry, but decided that that’s probably not a thing in Rome. Maybe spaghetti dinners though…


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