fratelli e sorelle, buongiorno! (Dear
brothers and sisters, Good morning!)
As the Pope’s greeting echoed around St. Peter’s Square, the crowd
responded by clapping, cheering, and shouting Viva il Papa! People waved
yellow and white Vatican flags, groups held
up signs in their native language, and youth groups spontaneously broke into
Among the crowd were 23 women from Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland, Illinois,
and Washington State who had traveled together for an all-girl’s trip to Italy.
They had a packed itinerary planned – Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Pompeii, the
Amalfi Coast, and the Island of Capri – and attending the Pope’s Angelus
Blessing on Sunday was at the top of their list.
After months of planning there they were, not even 24 hours after landing in Rome, standing
in St. Peter’s Square. As they waited they chatted, shared umbrellas when it
began drizzling, and put them away again when the sun came out. They wandered
around taking pictures of Bernini’s colonnade, of the Basilica’s facade, and of
Precisely at noon, it began. There was no fanfare; the Pope’s window
opened, a banner was unfurled, and a figure in white approached the window and
welcomed his brothers and sisters from around the world.
Pope Francis. At last.
He spoke for twenty minutes. And for those twenty minutes, as his
gentle voice reverberated across stone and marble, you could hear the quiet hum
of pilgrims whispering, translating, crying, and praying. And although not
everyone could speak Italian, the women in the group nonetheless understood because the
essence of what he said transcends the spoken word.
After he gave us what we needed to hear, he blessed us and then turned things around ... by asking us to pray for him.
voi auguro una buona domenica. E per favore, non dimenticatevi di pregare per
me. Buon pranzo e arrivederci! (To all I
wish a happy Sunday. Please, do not forget to pray for me. Have a good lunch. Arrivederci!)
We were living in Vicenza, Italy, when I participated in a ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The event was held at the American school on the military base, and part of the celebration involved students from the two sixth-grade classes reciting portions of Dr. King’s historic I Have a Dream speech.
All the students were terribly excited. Not only would we be part of an important event, but the American television station would be filming the ceremony and then broadcasting it on the evening news. Teachers began assigning lines, and every student raised his hand hoping to get a part. One by one lines were assigned, one by one hands went down as one student and then another was selected, and there I was, still sitting there with my hand raised.
Finally, much to my surprise, my name was called and I discovered I would be delivering the very last line of the speech, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
“Can you do this?” my teacher asked me quietly on the day of the ceremony. “These are important words; when you say them, you are sending them into tomorrow.”
I didn’t really understand what he was telling me, but I thought he meant that I should speak the words loudly.
That night we gathered around the television to watch the evening news, and at the end of the program the story faded out with the camera focusing on me reciting those 14 words.
Thirty years later, my husband and I took our three sons to visit the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, and there, standing next to the eternal flame across from his tomb, I told this story to my family.
They had never heard it before.
“Why were you picked to recite the very last line?” asked my son. “I mean, that’s one of the most memorable lines from the speech.”
Believe me, I have often wondered the same thing; after all, wouldn’t it have been more fitting to have had one of the black students recite the line – someone like Chris, who was tall and had a booming voice? Maybe I was picked because my teacher sensed my desperation, or he felt sorry for me (I was a mousy, timid thing), or maybe, in his wisdom, he knew that those words transcended race, gender, religion, and even time; that those words would always be hurled to the future as we strive to live them today; that the speech was bigger, truer, and more far reaching than any person who delivered it.
Of course, I didn’t understand the scope of his speech as I delivered those lines with all the passion of a timid, sixth-grader; in fact, it wasn’t until I was exploring the museum with our boys, standing in the pulpit where Dr. King used to preach, seeing his Nobel Peace Prize, and walking across the bridge alongside the life-sized statues depicting the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., that the memory even surfaced.
But I’m glad it did.
In my own small way I had been able to participate in something bigger, truer, and more far reaching than I could have possibly understood at the time, and standing with my family next to that eternal flame across from Dr. King’s tomb, we talked about how we are all part of something bigger, truer, and more far reaching.
And it isn’t until we recognize our role and embrace this fundamental truth that we can be truly “free at last.”
Maria Novajosky is a freelance writer and works for Catholic Stewardship Consultants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.