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Last minute crush at the Holy Door

NCR Staff

Despite protests by gay activists and a last-minute flood of pilgrims that stunned even well-prepared Vatican planners, the Great Jubilee Year of 2000 concluded on a generally upbeat note.

John Paul ended the year by closing the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica Jan. 6, but before that could happen, tens of thousands of people cued up in the rainy cold of Jan. 5 for one last chance at crossing its threshold. Most were Romans who admitted that they could have come virtually any of the other 377 days the door had been open, but had put it off. One man joked: “We came for the sales!”

All day long pilgrims poured through the sacred door at a rate of 100 per minute. Vatican personnel played the role of cattle-herders, continually crying avanti, or “forward,” to keep stragglers moving.

By noon, when John Paul II made an unscheduled appearance at his window overlooking the square to wish the faithful well, it was obvious that if the basilica were to close at 6:00 p.m. as planned, thousands would go home disappointed. Shortly after the pope ducked back inside, loudspeakers announced to cheers that the great church would remain open “until the last pilgrim is through.”

At 1:30 a.m. however, with a small crowd yet remaining, Vatican security personnel announced that everyone had to disperse in order to allow time for preparation for the next day’s papal liturgy. Angry Romans, who had by that point invested hours waiting, were not to be cowed. They began shouting “Let us in!” and “shame!” After some tense moments, including walkie-talkie exchanges between police and unnamed Vatican officials, at 2:15 a.m., officials reversed course and the remaining faithful were allowed in.

Calm also prevailed at a protest the next day by a small group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Christians from the United States. The group had threatened to force police to arrest them on Saturday in St. Peter’s Square, after the papal Mass, if a Vatican official did not meet with them to initiate a dialogue about church teaching on homosexuality. After two-and-a-half hours, however, they left voluntarily.

Police detained two members of the group who had come to the square earlier in the day while the papal Mass was in progress. Police released them after the Mass, however, and did not make any arrests during the protest itself.

Authorities refused to allow the group to process to a giant nativity set in the middle of the square in order to leave photos of themselves, as gifts, at the feet of the Christ child.

Before disbanding, the group applauded the police for their courtesy, and then extended their arms towards the papal apartments to bless John Paul II, despite the fact that he did not send anyone to bless them.

Not everyone was impressed. Two 14-year-olds from Virginia, in Rome for a special Jubilee of the Legionaries of Christ held the days before, happened to be in the square and took objection to what they saw.

“It’s just a bunch of messed-up people spouting stuff,” said Patrick Ryland. “They’re dissing the pope,” added Frances Nuar, using a word of teen slang for “showing disrespect.”

Organizer Anglican Rev. Mel White, however, told NCR he was satisfied.

“We made enough of a start,” he said. “If we had forced them to arrest us, it would have left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. In the spirit of Epiphany, this was our gift to them.”

White vowed to be back next year. “We’ll keep coming in a spirit of nonviolence until these teachings change,” he said.

At a Jan. 8 press conference, Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, the primary logistical force behind the Jubilee effort, announced a papal decision that any money left over would go toward construction of a Rome facility for disabled pilgrims, who often have trouble finding hotels or other accommodations to meet their needs. “Not a penny will remain in the Vatican,” he said.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001