by Alexander Tolksdorf ’09 and Nicholas Tolksdorf ‘14
Travelling as a student (and guest) of the MBA International Studies in Business course at the University of Detroit Mercy, we visited Rome from Sunday, April 27 through Saturday, May 3. The course and travel component, planned well in advance by the College of Business Administration, inadvertently overlooked an event scheduled for Sunday, April 27. Limited hotel selection revealed that on that date, Pope Francis would be canonizing two 20th century Popes: John XXIII and John Paul II through a public ceremony held in St. Peter’s Square. What was a standard travel abroad component to a master’s course evolved into a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience in which we were able to be present in Rome for the canonization ceremony and celebration and later, a papal audience with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square. After arriving midday Saturday, our group began the pilgrimage to the Vatican early morning Sunday. Travelling down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, an avenue that cuts directly through the ancient city blocks in the heart of Rome, we slowly walked toward the Vatican, which lies just a few short blocks after the Corso crosses the Tiber River. The avenue, normally brimming full of Roman vehicular traffic became a pedestrian thruway in which our contingent walked with thousands of other pilgrims from all walks of life and a great variety of religious orders, many of them hoisting the flag of their home nation high and singing spirituals in their native tongues. Crossing the Tiber, a feat in and of itself given the crowds, we proceeded forward (not without difficulty) to the Via della Conciliazione, the main thoroughfare that leads directly to St. Peter’s Square. And there, we became engulfed by the cheering masses, approximately five blocks away from St. Peter’s Square! Indeed, with an estimated 1,000,000 pilgrims plus celebrating and witnessing the canonization from the area of St. Peter’s Square alone (not counting the vast number of others watching from screens across the Eternal City), we could not move forward – or interestingly enough, backward either! The road was densely packed to a point beyond words. It was not simply crowded, but so filled with people that there was no space in between worshippers or movement of people. Yet, the spirit of the crowd remained uplifted, joyous, and exuberant. The sounds of singing, rejoicing, and prayer in languages from across the globe could be heard all about oneself as it echoed through the streets. Jubilant flag waiving and cheering complemented the atmosphere of celebration and despite the multitudes, all remained calm and peaceful, united by a common faith and a desire to witness history in the Catholic Church. While, we later retreated from the Vatican area to watch the remainder of the ceremony on one of many screens set up in the city, we really never left. The joyous atmosphere and ecclesiastical music of the celebration flowed throughout the streets of old Rome, carried both by pilgrims moving to and from the Vatican area and the screens broadcasting the ceremony live. While the ceremony lasted only about two hours, it certainly was a memorable experience.
The celebratory spirit continued throughout the week. Our group was privileged to obtain seating during the papal audience held in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, April 30. There, we received a blessing from Pope Francis and had the opportunity to see the new Pope in person. The Pope is one of the people, seeming to relish meeting members of the crowd and lingering with gatherers beyond what is traditionally expected. The “Popemobile” would move back and forth through the crowd, sometimes repeating the same path, all while Pope Francis happily greeted and mingled with the faithful. Perhaps most telling, however, of the Pope’s character followed the ceremony and blessing, which concluded after approximately one hour. The Holy Father lingered outside of St. Peter’s Basilica after meeting the cardinals with the crowds for well over two hours, something that was unheard of in previous papacies. A humble man (adorned with a simple wooden cross and living in an apartment in a monastery – as opposed to the traditional palatial residence of the Popes located in the Vatican), Pope Francis appears to represent a new era in the history of the Catholic Church. Indeed, St. John XXIII presided over Vatican II, which would be known for redefining the relationship between the Church and the modern world and St. John Paul II would largely preside over the implementation – both physical and in spirit, within the Church. Pope Francis may now be in the position to preside over or be the catalyst of the next era of the Church, one that fulfills and extends the original deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. However, time will tell, but what is clear is that Pope Francis certainly sets a vastly different tone for the Catholic Church. Overall, the experiences we enjoyed and the history that we witnessed during the visit to Rome are ones that remain with us for the rest of our lives.