When in Rome...Vatican City
The world's smallest independentstate is entirely encircled by the city of Rome, covers only 44 acres and has a population of less than 1000. But one of those is a man in a white hat, and he holds sway over a substantial proportion of the rest of the world. If you want to see him you can wait for him to go on tour, or sign up for a brief personal audience, Wednesdays only. Or if you're in town on a Sunday, and he is too, head down to the piazza outside his front window at noon and he'll pop out and say a few words.
This is a very big week in Rome, the start of the Jubilee of Mercy, an almost-yearlong devotion launched on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Catholics from all around the world are invited to make a pilgrimage to the Vatican City to walk through the Holy Doors of the Basilica, flung wide yesterday for the first time since the millennium. With such an event on the cards there was no way Il Papa was going to be anywhere other than home at the weekend.
Security was therefore tight at this Sunday's gathering, as crowds flocking to St Peter's Square were given a full visual and physical once-over. Two of the Swiss Guard stood on patrol outside the external press HQ for the Jubilee, endearing in their coquettish hats but also wielding a pair of menacing-looking guns, so you're not getting a photo. Officially it's the Italian police who have authority right up until the international border, here marked by a white line painted on the piazza, so they were present in far greater numbers. One gave me the most convincing patdown I've had in years, confirming by touch that the large lump in my pocket was a camera and not any form of concealed weapon, before admitting me to the outer circle.
There was then a further slow-moving queue to pass through the colonnade to a metal detector and gain access to the centre of St Peter's Square (which isn't square, more keyhole shaped, and rather vast). Stuff that, I thought, I'm not risking being stuck behind a pillar when the Pope appears, I'll hang around outside the railing within the final metre of Italy. Good move. The queue deposited most of those venturing within to a viewing position in front of St Peter's, which is not where the Holy Father lives, and I ended up with a (relatively) better view by staying where I was. But not a good view. The Pope's corporeal form is considerably smaller than his spiritual aura, and his apartments several floors above the ground. The chosen window was indicated a few minutes ahead of time by the unfurling of a dark red papal banner beneath the sill, and a tiny white blob stepped up behind a lectern to appear at precisely midday. Centuries of stage management have not gone to waste in the Holy See.
Not being well-versed in Italian, and my Latin O-Level proving conversationally useless, it was hard to follow what Pope Francis was saying. I deduced he'd kicked off with the equivalent of a sermon, this for a good ten minutes, to which the assembled masses listened diligently. Those around me included tourists, ordinary Romans and also a group of bearded friars in sweeping blue robes who could have been straight out of the latest Star Wars film. The papal address continued with a lengthy blessing, the Angelus, at which point the Catholics in the crowd revealed themselves by mouthing along and making the appropriate gestures. Finally came what I think were a series of notices, undoubtedly concerning the Jubilee, but also individual announcements which caused excitable cheers in small clusters of the crowd when their particular corner of the world was mentioned.
"Salvation is offered to every man, and every people, without excluding anyone, to each one of us. None of us can say, 'I am a saint; I am perfect; I am already saved'. No. We should always accept this offer of salvation, and that is the reason for the Year of Mercy: to advance further in this journey of salvation, this path that Jesus has taught us. God wants all mankind to be saved by the mediation of Jesus, the only mediator."
Not everybody seemed enraptured. Some of those within the confines of the Vatican chatted happily throughout, and towards the end I watched as a priest departed the piazza dragging a silver wheelie suitcase behind him. After twenty minutes the collective audience finally concluded, and a few pixels of Pope stepped back down into his rooms. This was the cue for the majority of those watching from the Italian side to depart, thronging down Via Della Concilliazione to return to Rome proper. Here the hawkers awaited their weekly prey, wielding leaflets for hop-on hop-off sightseeing tours and restaurants, while souvenir booths attempted to flog Pope Francis calendars and cut-price rosaries. Another local speciality, the stooping be-shawled beggar, demonstrated her piety by quivering and moaning whilst waving a tiny collecting tin in front of her. Few euros were forthcoming.
Meanwhile back in the piazza, some of the crowd awaited the official switching on of the nativity display, this to be enacted remotely by the Pope from his apartment (I assume via the medium of electricity rather than tongues of flame). Sunday was not the best time to visit, but public access to the vast church of St Peter's is generally free of charge, with only a trip up the dome costing extra. The Vatican's Museums are also reputedly a must-see, and the only way to enter the Sistine Chapel, but generally very closed on Sundays. Only a small portion of this micro-nation is publicly accessible, but come back in the evening and you can wander the piazza unhindered, from thefountains to the portakabin post office, and muse on the state of Catholicism today. It's another country. [11 photos]