Two UR students participating in different study abroad programs share their unique experiences while living in Italy during this historical time.

I had planned to head over to Vatican City on a Saturday morning because I knew that the pope had been ill, from the little information that I could scrounge together from Italian newspapers on the street. I wanted to go and survey the situation for myself, but was not prepared for the events that awaited me.

When I finally arrived at Piazza San Pietro, I barely recognized where I was. Not being Catholic made me very curious as to why thousands of perfectly average people would spend hours staring at, waiting for and watching a window. I, myself, after six hours of standing in the midst of Romans with their ears glued to radios, catching the latest updates, was not quite sure what I was doing.

I got my answer a little after 10 p.m. local time when we, the crowd, received the announcement that Pope John Paul II had passed away.

I had anticipated this moment for the past few hours and wondered what the crowd reaction could be like. My predictions couldn’t have been farther from reality. I braced myself for a deafening silence, but instead a thundering applause arose from the crowd, which I then learned is an Italian sign of respect and love.

The applause faded, and when I looked I saw a mass of people who all seemed lost without their “Padre Santo.”

Teenage boys, who on any other day would be drinking beer and harassing girls, fell to the ground with tears of grief, wives clung to their husbands, youth choirs sang in praise and everyone prayed.

A wave of emotion took me over in a way that I never thought it would and a man’s passing, whom I had only seen a few times on television, reduced me to tears.

I don’t know if it was exhaustion or sympathy for a people that I was trying to understand, but this was one of the emotionally straining moments of my life.

I had been drawn in. The feeling that I got standing in the crowd at St. Peter’s Square at the moment of the pope’s passing had ignited an entire new respect in me for a person’s faith. When Pope John Paul II was set to lie in state in the Basilica di San Pietro, I wanted to go.

After class I went back, along with what felt like the rest of Europe.

I found myself in a midst of rosaries, flowers, notes and pictures for Giovanni Paolo, and I was standing in a line that I could not even see the end of.

Again, I questioned my actions. Police and volunteers passed out water to the waiting masses as we all just stood – and waited.

After five hours, I was standing in a place that I had been 20 times before, the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Usually, when one enters this church, they can’t take their eyes off of the mosaics, La Pieta and the sheer size of the structure.

Tonight, I could just stare forward. I don’t even remember walking up to the altar, but before I knew it, I was in a place the whole world was looking at. When I looked at him, I couldn’t help but think of all of the places that this man had been, the languages he knew, the books he had read, the history he had affected and the people’s lives that he had touched. Regardless of being the heir of St. Peter and the Bishop of Rome, I was overtaken by a completely different set of qualities.

I was so happy that I went that night, not only because the wait that I had endured would triple in length in the next few days, but because I felt satisfied that I got to see a man who had impacted the world, and now – even after his death – me.

The next few days were hard, as Rome turned from a city filled with pizzas, scooters and stray cats into one taken over by media vans, microphones and obnoxious reporters. It seemed like the whole world was watching us, prying to get the latest update from the Eternal City. What they failed to capture is how the event of one person’s passing had truly rocked this place to its core. Romans were quiet, solemn and above all offended by the media circus that had overtaken such a sad time for the Catholics who live here. I have developed an entirely new perspective on the city that I am calling home and also the people who surround me here. I knew that my time in Rome would be filled with new lessons and “once in a lifetime” experiences. I had no idea how right I was.

Winkler can be reached at

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