Serving for the Pope - Awesome in More Ways Than Meets the Eye

So, I've come to the conclusion that gazillion-word blog posts are not a good thing (primarily because they take forever for me to write - so I don't often write them - but also because they take a long time to read - and most of you folks don't have an over-abundance of time, so here's a short post about my serving for the Pope this past Christmas).  I'm currently  in the midst of 2-3 weeks of oral finals (the 6 of them are spaced out pretty well - which is nice because there's less stress, but not-so-nice because it means I'm doing finals for 3 weeks...), but since my next one isn't until Friday, I decided to get an update out...
Background: a group of guys from Brute were going to be coming to Rome after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and so I stuck around here for the first week of Christmas break so that I could show them around and hang out with them while they were here.  Obviously, I wasn't going to miss the chance to spend time with them, and I was also pretty pumped to be able to experience Rome around Christmas and show them around the city that I had been enjoying for the past few months, but those reasons would quickly be over-shadowed by a certain even-more-amazing blessing that was given us...
My task, in the months leading up to their trip here, was to line up the things we'd be seeing/doing while they were here, so - besides tours of St. John Lateran's, St. Mary Major, St. Peter's, the Scavi, a trip to Assisi, different walks around Rome to see other churches, and the coliseum, and stuff like that - I also wanted to get them tickets to attend Midnight (actually 9:30 PM) Mass on Christmas at St. Peter's.  So, I contacted the sisters at the Casa Santa Maria (located right next to the Gregorian, it was the NAC before it moved up here on the Janiculum, and these days it's the house of further studies for American priests, and the place where the sisters work to line things up for American pilgrims/tourists in Rome).  Basically, I contacted them to request tickets for the 9 of us seminarians and to check into how Fr. Bob (the rector at Brute) could be able to concelebrate at Christmas Mass.  As it turned out - a couple of weeks later - the sisters were unable to get tickets for us to attend Mass (they didn't get very many this year), but Fr. Bob, who had meanwhile contacted the liturgical folks over at St. Peter's, had gotten a ticket to concelebrate and permission for us seminarians to attend Mass.  The letter, though, was in Italian, and it also - intriguingly - asked that us seminarians show up to St. Peter's the day before for a prova [Italian for "practice" or "meeting"].  I didn't know why we would have to show up for something the day before (it wasn't specific) - surely we weren't serving or something... - but the more I asked around, the more I found that there was no other reason for us to be there the day before unless we were going to be serving. 
Practicing before Mass!
So, long story short, we made our way into St. Peter's on the morning of the 24th, found Msgr. Cihak, who we were supposed to meet up with, and - after he asked if we were the group from Indianapolis - he immediately started assigning us different things to do during the Mass.  I was picked for carrying the 7th candle (indicating the presence of a bishop - in this case the pope), to hold the microphone for the deacon (prayers of the faithful, "the Mass is ended, go in peace", etc.) and to wash Pope Francis's hands during the offertory.  We were all looking at each other like - wait, so we're serving for the Pope! - and sure enough, we were!  We then had a practice to run through everything we'd be doing that evening (all the MC's made it super easy, literally, you just waited at your spot until they came and got you for your next task), and then we were asked to show back up that evening early enough to run through everything again, oh, and so we could meet, and help vest, the Pope before Mass!  Needless to say, we were on cloud nine for the rest of the day! 

Waiting for His Holiness!
We arrived back at St. Peter's around 8 PM, had our practice, and then spent 30 minutes anxiously in the chapel of the Pieta (which I hadn't ever seen anybody inside of, it is all behind glass) for the Pope to arrive.  20 minutes until Mass, in walked the Vicar of Christ, and moments later he was walking around greeting us and shaking our hands!  What a moment!  Looking back, even after a month, I can't quite wrap my mind around it.  It wasn't just a cool moment because I got to greet the pope - you know, he's pretty famous, the head of the Church, directly connected with St. Peter, and Christ's chosen vicar here on earth - gosh, it was so much more than that.  But, so much more amazing to me than that, was the realization that Pope Francis is a human being like the rest of us.  Maybe that should be obvious - ok, it definitely should - and don't get me wrong - he's definitely been given a position, and a responsibility, way beyond mine, and I'd guess most of yours...  But, as I shook his hand and looked into his eyes I saw a man that was excited to celebrate Christmas, and tired from a long day in a hard "job", and happy to see us serving for him, and - in so many ways - a person a lot like myself.  I don't want to underplay his role in the Church by any means, but it was such an eye-opening experience to realize that he's not just a person that shows up on TV, or gives an angelus address each week, or writes encyclicals that I try to read.  He's a person with strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows, favorite
foods, and books, and hobbies... 

A couple months back we had the opportunity to go on a tour of the Swiss Guards' barracks, and the guard giving us a tour mentioned that from time to time he got to be stationed outside of Pope Francis's apartment, and so he got to know the Pope fairly well, including the fact that he really liked candy but had been told by his doctors that he'd have to cut back on sweets for health reasons.  At the time I chuckled with everybody else, but that little detail didn't actually sink in until I had the chance to meet the pope and serve for him.  Seeing him - up close - during that Mass reminded me again and again that he's a man like the rest of us -  and weak like the rest of us.  Yet, he's been given a responsibility - to feed Christ's flock - that's absolutely tremendous.  Basically, I saw that he wasn't some sort of super-human character, but he still has a super-human job to do!  He didn't look invincible, or for that matter terribly weak, he just looked really normal!  What I realized during that Mass was that - above all else - he needs our prayers!  How quick we are to complain about Pope Francis - he's too vague, he's too critical, he's too liberal, he's too conservative, whatever - but how often we forget to pray for him: for his health, and strength, and holiness! 
So yeah, it was an amazing experience to be able to serve for the Pope!  I was thrilled while I was doing it, it'll probably be one of my top-10 experiences for the rest of my life, and it's bound to make good homily material one day (God willing).  But, as so often is the case, there's so much more to each experience than meets the eye!  This is why I love blogging about these things, it makes me reflect back on them and see the deeper meaning.  Serving for Pope Francis means serving him in so many more ways than just holding a candle and pouring water over his hands!  It means serving along-side of him in the Church, in praying for him and for the Church that he is leading, and I am also a part of. 

Yeah, so it was incredible, and eye-opening, and inspiring, and profound, and awesome!
Sorry, they did take pictures of the actual meeting with the Pope (and Mass afterwards), but I haven't bought them, so I can't put them  up here, yet...