Up close and personal with the Pope: March 14, 2012

By Neha Tara Mehta and Raya Jalabi

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI at this week's papal audience. | Photo by Andrea Palatnik.

The drumbeats at St. Peter’s Square could have been straight out of a football game. They added to our sense of anticipation: we had been waiting for over half an hour to see Pope Benedict XVI from up close at his weekly papal audience. This was the second time we were trying to catch a glimpse of the leader of the Catholic Church. The last time we tried doing so was on Sunday, when he appeared as a speck in the balcony at the Angelus prayer. It took powerful zoom lenses loaned to us by the generous equipment room staff to actually photograph  him. Unfortunately, many of us were stopped from filming him by the Vatican security…

We weren’t disappointed the second time round. As school children chanted “BENEDICTO!” in unison, the Pope came within a few feet of us. Apertures and shutter speeds were quickly adjusted, and we finally caught the Pope, a frail but imposing figure, being driven through the crowds wearing a benign smile. A greater surprise awaited us: Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism was given a special mention by Pope Benedict XVI himself in the list of institutions present at St. Peter’s Square.

The Pope’s address, which was said primarily in Italian, wasn’t easy for most of us to follow. Brandon Gates, a practicing Catholic said, “I felt honored to be in his presence as he is a great world figure, but I didn’t understand what he said.”

The afternoon took us to the Islamic Community Center of Rome, informally referred to as the Mosque of Rome, a majestic structure that synthesizes Islamic and Occidental styles. Though Islam is the second largest religion in Italy, it is yet to be recognized by the state. What struck Hoda Emam after a tour of the mosque was the fact that it was making an effort to promote inter-faith dialogue. “As we were entering, I saw a nun walking out of the mosque,” said Hoda Emam.

Moschea di Roma

Ines Novacic ties a scarf around her head, in preparation to enter the Islamic Center of Rome. | Photo by Andrea Palatnik.

Interfaith dialogue turned out to be the flavor of the day and night. After our visit to the Mosque, we headed to the Istituto Tevere, a center dedicated to promoting inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue in Rome. Mustafa Cenap Aydin, one of our guides on the Mosque tour, introduced us to the center he co-founded in 2007, as well as to two muslim scholars from Turkey, studying theology in Rome.

Later, the Religio group attended mass at the Lay Center at Foyer Unitas. An intimate evening service, consisting mainly of hymns and silent prayer was followed by dinner at the Lay Center. The class mingled with international lay students currently residing at the Center. The students’ origins varied from Bosnia to Indonesia to the Ivory Coast, and were all studying at the Pontifical Universities of Rome. We were all particularly excited to have Fr. Felix speak about Catholic-Muslim dialogue, as both our class and the lay students had been engaged in interreligious discourse throughout dinner.

We ended our rather exhaustive day with a group meeting with Marco Politi, an experienced religion writer from La Repubblica. Despite the exhaustion, most of the group decided to follow Politi’s advice and wander the streets of Rome as a final farewell to the city.

Wishes were made at the Trevi Fountain, but plans for an Anita Eckberg-La Dolce Vita reenactment were abandoned in the face of security cameras, replaced with more convivial vagabonding.

Arrivederci Roma!

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