Easter in the Rain at St. Peter's Square


My various work projects had been so demanding that Easter 2015 had hardly even entered my mind before I boarded flights for Rome last Friday. I had no way of knowing that this would be the most intense Easter of my life.

Shortly after landing at Rome's Fiumicino airport on Easter eve, I found myself watching Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) with a dozen deeply devoted Catholic college students. I had never seen The Passion before, and I can affirm that I will never watch it again. In its own way the film's depiction of the last twelve hours of Jesus' life is gripping, but it is so unrelentingly and graphically violent that I had to cover my face a number of times just to get through it. It seemed to me that no body could ever endure so much grotesque physical abuse, that if Jesus had actually been subjected to the kind of torture depicted in the film, he would never have lived long enough to be crucified.

There are paradoxes here. We know that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities after being whipped and scourged and beaten. The Romans were ruthless about such things. So the depiction in The Passion of Christ is probably more realistic and historically accurate than we like to think. And—I get it—the point of Mel Gibson's film is to make us just as uncomfortable as possible without driving us out of the theater. How can we understand God's decision to make himself suffer the ultimate human degradation unless we have something like a real understanding of what that must have involved by way of physical and mental suffering?

As I watched The Passion in horror, I realized that my idea of the crucifixion has always been pretty vague and mythological. Whenever I have stood before Michelangelo's stunning Pieta in St. Peter's—one of the world's supreme works of sculpture—I have never once stopped to recognize that by the time Mary held her dead son in her arms, Jesus' body was torn in every way, pierced by a spear, whipped and scourged right down to the ribs, bloody, bruised, swollen, and profoundly disfigured. The perfection and artistic serenity of Michelangelo's treatment removes the bloodlust from the story, and lets us concentrate instead on the pity of the crucifixion, and even the divine dignity of it, rather than its sickening violence. I give Gibson credit for that—he made the torture and execution of Jesus real for me for the first time.

Too real. The film's obsession with graphic violence felt gratuitous to me. It turned my stomach rather than deepened my understanding of the sacrifice. I could not sleep for many hours, but during that time I was not praying to God or Jesus in praise or sorrow, I was just sick at heart at man's ingenuity in meting out pain to his fellow man.

One more note about the film. Just as Jesus began to climb the steep hill of Golgatha, carrying a cross that even a healthy man would have had trouble hoisting up the trail, a real thunderstorm broke over Rome. We all jumped from the unexpected flash of lightning, and exchanged nervous glances. The last forty minutes of The Passion were, for us, accompanied by a kind of angry orchestral thunderstorm.

On Easter Sunday we got up at first light to hasten by city bus to St. Peter's Square. An audience of more than a million pilgrims was expected. If we had any expectation of getting seats close to the platform on which Pope Francis would celebrate the mass, or for that matter to get any seats at all, we had to get to St. Peter's three full hours ahead of time, and then jostle our way to preferred seating once the security team began to let people pass through the magnetometers. At times it felt more like a badly organized Super Bowl than a Papal mass at the Vatican, but the students I was with were savvy and ready to forge their way (politely but unhesitatingly) to excellent seats. I do not exaggerate when I say that there were elderly nuns in the crowd who locked arms and surged forward like a Greek phalanx. People come from all over the world for this sacred occasion.

When we took our seats, about ten rows back from the protective fence, it had begun to drizzle. Just three hours to go! Then it began to rain. Then it began to rain hard. Then it began to rain cats and dogs. I had brought a couple of books in my backpack to occupy the long wait before the mass began, but they would have been ruined in minutes if I had pulled them out. By eight a.m. the crowd entirely filled the vastness of St. Peter's Square and spilled over blocks deep in every direction. Just two and a quarter hours to go! As far as I could tell there was roughly one umbrella for each hundred people at the Vatican. If ever there was a moment that called for a loaves and fishes miracle, this was it. The number of umbrellas did actually seem to increase over time, but it rained well more than an inch Easter morning, perhaps two, and no matter how many umbrellas interlocked to create a kind of ad hoc pilgrim's awning, that water had to go somewhere. The net effect was not to keep us any dryer than we would have been bareheaded, but to concentrate the flood into icy rivulets that suddenly ran off the umbrella ahead of you (or behind you) and down your back.

By the time the mass began at 10:15 a.m. we were as wet and cold as it was possible to be, sitting in cheap plastic chairs that had become shallow pools of rain water, trying to get a glimpse of the Pope, or anything at all for that matter, through the sea of brightly colored umbrellas. We were about as close to Pope Francis as it was possible to get, and yet we could neither see him nor even see the giant Jumbotron that televised the event. Most of the students had begun to shiver, sodden with rain, chilled by wind, with the temperature at about 40 degrees.

Nevertheless, almost everyone who had come to St. Peter's Square stayed—because it was Easter, because individuals had ventured, at great expense, from all over the planet to experience this moment, because (we all had to feel) what's a little discomfort in the face of Jesus' agonies? We stayed, too, because we were in the presence of Pope Francis, who has in his remarkable ministry struck an unusually strong chord with the peoples of the world. My group stayed also because Tom Schulzetenberg, the director of UMary's Rome program, had been given the high honor of reading a short text to almost a million pilgrims.

Hours later, once we had gotten out of our soggy clothes and showered for a very long time, we broke bread together back at the Rome campus. I had smuggled in jelly beans and chocolate eggs and Jello from Dakota. Jello, it turns out, doesn't perform very well outside of its home court. Here in Rome it was just a dark red slurry on our plates.

This was the Easter I will never forget.

St. Peter's and the Vatican, Rome. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. 1750. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.