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Turn to Jesus (Article)

My Experience as an Acolyte for the Pope
Br. Riccardo Garzari, LC, shares the experience of serving in the Easter Vigil Mass with Pope Benedict XVI.

Riccardo Garzari, LC porta la croce processionale 2011
Br Garzari, LC, bearing the processional cross.

By Riccardo Garzari, LC

It all began on the afternoon of Holy Thursday. I was coming back from the Roman basilica of St. Mary Major, where I had participated in the liturgy as an acolyte during the holy Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

The community was finishing night prayers in front of the altar of repose. At midnight we met again in front of Christ in the Eucharist to adore him and then to continue with adoration turns throughout the night until 5:00 in the afternoon of the following day, when we would celebrate the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion.

The house was wrapped in silence, which fostered the atmosphere of interior prayer. Each one know that on that night, in the hour of trial in the Garden of Olives, Jesus was feeling the need to be accompanied and sustained. I sat down in a side section of the dining room to eat something, since I had left quickly after lunch for the rehearsals in the Basilica.

Then a brother came up to me and told me that on Saturday afternoon I would be an acolyte in the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Helping in the Pope’s Mass: this is what I would be talking to Christ about in my night adoration turn, while I accompanied him in his agony. “Jesus, you have chosen me to help your Vicar in the divine liturgy, in the most important Mass of the entire year, where you are risen, where you show yourself as the light of the world.”

On Saturday morning, we entered St. Peter’s Basilica along with many tourists, and kept within the barriers along the one-way path. There were 14 of us. We passed in front of Michelangelo’s statue of the Pietà, where the Pope’s sacristy is. That was where
S. Messa con il Papa, 2011 Riccardo Garzari, LC
“We are here to help people to experience the Risen Christ,” said Bishop Guido Marini.
we would begin the procession that same afternoon. Then we passed in front of the altar, which was already prepared to receive the remains of the future Blessed Pope John Paul II. This was now the sacristy zone for the cardinals, who are the Pope’s closest assistants. The path passed in front of the cross of Christ, which is venerated on this Holy Saturday in place of the Eucharist, which disappears from the tabernacles, just as Christ disappears from our eyes in the sepulcher. Afterwards, we pass in front of the altar with the remains of Blessed John XXIII, the Good Pope, and come to the main altar, that of the Confession of Faith, crowned with Bernini’s immense bronze baldacchino.

This is where we meet for the practices. There is a constant stream of people: workers who prepare the baptismal font, who set up the different platforms and pulpits, masters of ceremonies who consult each other, each with a folder of practical guidelines that help the liturgy to function well, tourists who take photos, who look admiringly at the beauty of the art, but who, observing their gaze, perhaps do not manage to penetrate deeply into the spiritual meaning of the place where they find themselves: Rome is the center of Christianity.

And there we are, a little lost, a little excited, awaiting some direction. One of the masters of ceremony comes up to us and gestures for us to follow him. We begin. We get in line by height. I already know how this works: the tallest are almost always assigned to carry the cross and the candles in the entrance and exit processions, and that is how it turned out this time. I was chosen to carry the processional cross. This meant that the others would get to be close to the Pope, holding the Missal and the microphone, bringing the incense, washing the hands. Patience!  The important thing is that I am there and I am helping the Vicar of Christ.

Among the small services, they ask me to bring the white vestments to the newly baptized on behalf of the Pope. They are also there, the 6 catechumens. They are adults, also excited. I realize because when I come to them pretending to be carrying the vestment, one of them blushes and turns to call someone nearby. Being baptized, being a child of God, is something we sometimes take for granted. And it is the greatest grace that Christ could give us. No one could save himself after original sin. Christ, dying, destroyed death and made us sons and daughters of the living God, opening the gates of paradise to us. And the catechumens know it. They feel it perhaps more than I do.

The practices continue. Each small group of acolytes follows the instructions of the master of ceremonies to whom they have been entrusted. It is already almost midday. We gather so that they can tell us when and where to meet for the afternoon, and the papal master of ceremonies, Bishop Guido Marini, comes to talk to us. This tall, thin, serious man, who with his lace-rimmed vestments comes across on television like a most honest bearer of the Church’s liturgical tradition, reveals himself before us as a living teacher of prayer. With a peaceful smile and a deep gaze, he speaks to us about what will happen that afternoon. He tells us about the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection: we will make so many liturgical gestures, so many movements, we will be at the Pope’s side, we will be excited, they will take pictures of us, the television will be there, and we will feel like protagonists. But this is just the external aspect. We are going to celebrate Christ. He is and will always be the only protagonist. His gentle voice becomes strong when he speaks of the centrality of Christ: “We are here to help people to experience the Risen Christ,” he says, as if paraphrasing Pope Benedict XVI who wrote a few years ago in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, speaking to priests and to those preparing for the priesthood, “Our reason for being is to show God to men.”

The afternoon approaches. We plant ourselves in front of the Paul VI Hall, also called the Nervi Hall after its builder, and await entry into the Basilica. Various phone calls and messages of greetings and congratulations, of “good luck” come to the cell phone, and we decide to turn it off. They are beautiful gestures of affection, but we have to concentrate and above all, be interiorly recollected. We go in. The choir is practicing the different voices, the songs that will fill the Basilica. Everything is now ready. The afternoon is for the final placing of the liturgical objects that in just a short time will serve the Pope to celebrate the wonders of God. We repeat the same gestures from the morning, fixing the passages into our memories. It is easier now. There is no need to imagine anything; we have it all in view. We enter the sacristy. The Pietà statue, which is often admired through a glass window, is now just two steps away from us. We could almost turn it around.

Some of us begin to pray the Rosary and are pleasantly surprised when the master of ceremonies, Bishop Guido Marini, joins our little group. As always, he is silent, recollected, a teacher of prayer for all of us. There are 10 minutes to go. From behind the curtains dividing the papal sacristy from the central nave of the Basilica, we can hear a ringing sound, an excited tumult, and the flashing of cameras. Our excitement rises, and there are the distractions—not to mention the mental confusions. We are hoping that everything will go well.

“To your places!” It is not a coronel calling us, but a master of ceremonies. The Pope has arrived. We arrange ourselves in line. Each one of us is holding one of the objects to clothe the Holy Father during the ceremony. I am holding the stole. We will enter into the small room two by two, with the brother next to me carrying the Pope’s pectoral cross. In a moment when he thought no one saw, he quickly leaned forward to kiss it. I saw out of the corner of my eye. Well, I’m sure I would have done the same.

We head toward the room. An almost overwhelming silence reigns inside that little room. An acolyte holds the open book with the prayers that Benedict XVI will mentally recite as he clothes himself with each one of the ornaments. The master of ceremonies makes sure everything is working well from the start. He is directly in front of me, and just to his side is the Holy Father. His gestures are measured, no whisperings, no distractions. Bishop Marini takes the pectoral cross from my brother and surprise, he leaves without waiting for me. I take advantage to step to the left and observe the Pope from the side, almost in front. It is just an instant. I hand over the stole and must also leave. For me, everything has now begun. I prepare myself for the entrance procession and we go out.

The curtain is opened, the people applaud, and I have to lower my eyes a little because of all the camera flashes. At my right, near the barrier, I recognize two people who greet me. I respond with a look of understanding, nothing more. We leave the doorway and begin the celebration from the atrium, where the Easter fire is lit. From that fire, which will soon be blessed by the Pope, the Easter candle will be lit as a symbol of the Risen Christ, the true light of the world. The ceremony has begun: “In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

From the atrium, we pass into the Basilica. Everything is dark. The only light shining is the light of the Easter candle, from which the people’s candles will be lit. Christ gives his light to all the peoples of the earth. The deacon proclaims the coming of Christ’s light, and all of a sudden, all the lights in the Basilica turn on. Applause erupts. Each of us takes our place. The Pope sits down, and the readings begin, reproducing the history of salvation, the history of how, from the betrayal of Adam and Eve, God began to look for the way to bring man back to himself. And it is in the reading of the creation that the Holy Father stands for his homily.

Afterwards is the baptism. Behind the altar, my usual position, I walk in front to bring the white vestments to the recently baptized. The Pope baptizes one by one, with the infusion of water on each one. Smiles appear on the faces of the new children of God. They blush and would like to do something but they have to stay quiet, strong. I want to embrace them!  But I also restrain myself. Afterwards, the candles go to the sponsors, and I return to behind the altar.

Next came the offertory, the Eucharistic liturgy, and communion. Benedict XVI prepares to give the solemn blessing, and we prepare for the conclusion of the Mass. This time, I am to begin the procession, carrying the processional cross. In front of me is the assembly, and the people lean over the barriers to see better, to take pictures. Everyone makes the sign of the cross when the cross goes by, and they applaud the Holy Father as he passes.

We enter the sacristy and I place myself in front of the holy door, which is sealed shut and will not open until the next jubilee. I turn, and at my side are the acolytes with the processional candles. The cardinals enter and go to the part of the sacristy set aside for them. The newly baptized enter and hug each other joyfully. There are shouts of excitement behind the curtain when the Pope comes in. He immediately greets the new Christians and then turns toward the cross—which I am still holding—and makes a bow of veneration. Then he opens his arms, as is his custom, and gives us his Easter congratulations. He makes a move to leave, but then he changes direction and comes to greet the acolytes who were holding the Missal during the ceremony, and then he greets the other acolytes. I am there, with the cross. No way am I letting it go. One of the masters of ceremony realizes, takes the cross from me, and tells me to go running to greet him. But the Pope’s secretary, Bishop Georg, looks at his watch and realizes it is late. The Holy Father is generous but he needs to rest. Tomorrow morning he will have to be in another similar celebration and he needs to rest.

It’s true… but… too bad!  The guards move, making a tunnel for Benedict XVI to pass through on his way to the door of the papal sacristy, and he disappears behind the door. It’s over… One of the masters of ceremony, the one who realized that I was standing firm, holding the cross, looked me in the eyes and understood. He entered into the papal sacristy and returned with a rosary and gave it to me. A rosary blessed by the Pope. Well, now it really is over!  We exchanged Easter congratulations. The master of ceremonies came out with a smile and congratulated us. All was well.

We entered the Basilica again. It was already empty. The chairs had all been moved by the crowd that came out of the mass. Here and there were books from the celebration, no longer useful. I, for one, have one as a souvenir. The guards tell us that the door to the parking area is still open, but we should hurry. We go out into the fresh air, our muscles relax, and we don’t know what to say. The first words were few: it was great, how exciting. Afterwards, we get into the car. We leave, and along the way we share the things that struck us the most, each one from his place, having seen the celebration from different perspectives, and this was mutually enriching.

We get home and it is time for bed. Tomorrow will be another day. But we are all hungry and we go to the kitchen to eat something. We are already in silence… the community has gone to bed. Mass ended earlier here. And in this silence, each one of us can think again about the great grace we received. Not one of us talks, but our gazes, even looking at the plate, lets it be seen that the heart is speaking, thanking Jesus. Everything is quiet, but the soul of each one is blessing the Lord for the marvels that he accomplishes day by day in each one’s life.



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