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I didn’t get to church on Sunday — this is what, my third flu this year? Pathetic, or maybe just scary. (“The germs are winning,” says Dad.) So I’ve got nothing on that front. But I did have an interesting “worship experience” a couple of weeks ago — March 30, to be exact. An up-very-close look at personal spiritual devotion.

Sister Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun, was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 2000. Shortly thereafter, a request made to Kowalska during her visions of Jesus was granted: the Second Sunday after Easter received the title of Divine Mercy Sunday. A decree from the Congregation of Divine Worship made it official, and the day was termed “a perennial invitation to the Christian world to face, with confidence in divine benevolence, the difficulties and trials that mankind will experience in the year to come.” Later, the Church of the Holy Spirit in Sassia, just down a narrow street from Saint Peter’s Basilica, was dedicated to the Divine Mercy, the huge apse mural depicting Pentecost obscured in no small part by a huge rendering of the Divine Mercy Icon mounted over the tabernacle: Jesus, His sacred heart exposed, with twin rays of light — one white, one red — streaming forth. The motto at the base: “Jesus, I trust in you!” Or, in this case, “Gesu, confido in te!” (A side chapel featured an enormous oil painting of Pope John Paul II in gold vestments, seated, his hand resting on an open book in his lap.)

Posters in every church vestibule in Rome — from great basilicas to humble chapels off side streets — advertised that the upcoming Divine Mercy Sunday Mass at Santo Spiritu in Sassia would be celebrated by Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, sometimes referred to as the “Vice-Pope.” I arrived 20 minutes before Mass, but that was nowhere near early enough, as I would soon learn. Twin banners hung on the church façade: one depicting Sister Kowalska, one heralding the upcoming World Apostolic Congress on Mercy. It was like a Kowalska convention, and this was to be the spiritual high point.

A band stood outside, outfitted in black berets and olive jackets with red epaulets — a very military effect. Drums, oboes, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, and cymbals played tunes for the crowd milling about on the church steps, awaiting the Cardinal’s arrival. (Or so I thought.) And arrive he did, his red-cassocked form stepping out from a sleek black BMW to salutes from two blue-uniformed escorts. The church’s pastor approached, smiling, shook the Cardinal’s hand and bent to kiss his ring in the same motion. Someone handed the Cardinal what looked like a hand-broom, which he dipped in Holy Water and sprinkled on the assembled crowd. Then he was whisked away, and we filed into church.

Except we didn’t, not really. The stone doorway of the church was massive, but mostly blocked. Only two small doors permitted entrance. Bodies swarmed up the stairs of the church, oblivious to the sight they would behold once inside: more bodies. So many more. The church was at standing room only long before I managed to slip and twist and jostle my way inside. Once I had found a place to stand, some four feet inside the doorway, the bodies kept coming. By the time Mass began, I could feel the breathing of the person in front of me, so packed together was the crowd. The sound system crackled and blared a shrill woman’s voice, singing as the Cardinal processed in from the side, surrounded by a host of acolytes and presbyters. He could not possibly have processed in from the rear.

The shrill voice sang in Italian — of course. The rest of the Mass was in Italian as well. Standing body to body at the very back of a packed and massive church for over an hour and a half listening to a language I didn’t understand was not exactly conducive to a deep personal communion with the divine. I’m not sure how good it would have been even if I did know Italian. But clearly, that wasn’t the point. The point was to be there, in that place, on that day — to show one’s devotion (if only to God and Saint Kowalska) by pressing into a building that was already full to bursting. Throughout the Mass, people wound their way back from parts forward, heading for the door. They had made their appearance, I suppose.

The readings, I found out later, were not entirely given over to the theme of mercy, though the first line of the Responsorial Psalm read: “Let the house of Israel say, ‘His mercy endures forever,’” and the Gospel quoted Jesus telling the Apostles, “Whose sins your forgive are forgiven them.”

Bertone took up forgiveness in his Homily (and here, I’m working from a fuzzy translation.) “There is no true peace without forgiveness,” he said, “which is why we must defuse the potential for war and anger that is in us.” At one point, the Cardinal seemed to look up from his notes and speak extemporaneously, with more passion than before. I would like to guess that it was here: “If we do not open our heart to Christ for forgiveness, we cannot renew our existence — we are increasingly compromised. Do not despair; even the greatest sinner can obtain peace of heart...Christ asks us to always have hope for change. Only the love of God will change the world.”

Communion provided a final illustration as to the sheer number of worshippers. Priests sallied forth into the solid mass of people, and people pressed in from all sides. I counted at least nine, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Priests remained for over an hour after Mass had ended and the Cardinal had departed, distributing the Host to the faithful.

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