Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica

Our family is spending this Christmas season in Rome, as a tribute to our parents, both my mother, Roberta Sisk, and Mindy's parents, Delbert and Theresia Gilchrist, who are celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary this year.

Yesterday, we all were privileged to attend the Papal Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Peter's Basilica (for which we express our appreciation to Father Peter Laird, the new Vicar General of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, who requested tickets from the Vatican on our behalf).

By now, nearly every reader of the Mirror of Justice is aware that the Holy Father was knocked down by a mentally unstable woman as he proceeded up the aisle at the beginning of the Mass. The incident took place only about ten yards away from where we were sitting, although none of us were able to see what had occurred other than my daughter, Katie, who could see security gathering around and then a man being carried out of the basilica (who turned out to be Cardinal Roger Etchegaray who suffered a broken hip when knocked to the marble floor with the Pope.) I'm glad that I didn't see the security guards with their hands on their guns moving down the aisle, as that would have made me more apprehensive about what might be unfolding.

What may not have been fully conveyed by the news media is the remarkable reaction and response of the congregation as this episode unfolded, as well as the beauty and serenity of the rest of the Mass, despite the unsettling beginning. As the young woman vaulted over the rail and lunged at the Pope, those in the immediate area naturally gasped in surprise. But then complete silence fell over the entire basilica. We all remarked afterward how the reaction was so different than one usually experiences when something occurs in a crowd, typically a loud buzzing moving through the crowd as people describe what they had seen and discuss what it means and what may happen next. Instead, other than some whispering, everyone was prayerful and quiet, waiting for what seemed like a considerable time but instead proved to be only a couple of minutes. Cheers then rang out when he resumed his entrance.

When the Pope continued up the aisle, passing by our row, he did not look to be greatly shaken and returned to nodding and smiling at the worshipers gathered. The rest of the service was so beautiful and meaningful that we had nearly forgotten the interruption at the beginning by the time the Mass ended. The Holy Father recessed down the aisle, stopping to greet children in the congregation, before proceeding to the manger scene for the placement of the baby Jesus. While the eight of us will always remember that we happened to be there for the unfortunate incident, the focus of our conversation and attention afterward was on the Mass and the meaning of Christmas.

If there is a silver lining to the small cloud that overshadowed the beginning of the Mass, it may be that the news media has given more attention as well than usual to Pope Benedict's Christmas message, a call to turn away from selfishness and self-absorption and find spiritual fulfillment in God.

Greg Sisk


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