An Easter Sunday I Will Never Forget

A year ago I celebrated Easter mass at the Vatican, now I will be celebrating through a screen.

My eyes filled with tears when the Vatican announced on March 14 that Easter mass would be celebrated without a public presence in the square at Saint Peter’s Basilica. I scoured a trove of photos and videos on my iPhone of the spring semester of my junior year in 2019 — the time I had the opportunity to venture outside the United States and study abroad in Italy.

While abroad, I was on a mission to fulfill a promise I made to myself in 2015. That year, my mother took me out of school to see if we could catch a glimpse of the Pope as he made his way down Fifth Avenue toward Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Though I don’t recall the waiting period, I do remember seeing him in a white Jeep Wrangler popemobile. As the procession passed by my mom and I, I wiggled my hand out from the crowded barricade and sent the Pope a wave. Pope Francis looked at me politely and waved back. Suddenly, the world around me stopped. I didn’t hear the cheers of the crowd or see the flashing lights from his security detail or the NYPD. This moment felt like a peaceful embrace from afar and a confirmation of the presence of God. That spiritual presence has stayed with me since. My promise to God to attend Easter mass at the Vatican emerged from this moment with the pope.

It took me four years to complete my promise. A year ago, I was given the chance to attend Easter Sunday mass in Saint Peter’s Square. My friends and I woke up at 5 a.m. and were able to obtain seats in the third row from the altar. The main entrance of the basilica within the square was transformed into an altar decorated with tulips, roses, daffodils and orchids. The readings and responses were read in different languages, including Latin. The celebration of the mass was an experience like no other. 

I believe there are two components that made it special — one being the presence of people from various nations and the other being the presence of the Pope, who is seen as the figurehead of the Catholic Church here on Earth. He is the closest human connection we have with God. I felt the presence of God, perhaps because I was at the heart of a venerated site. The same sense of peace and clarity I felt a  few years ago on Fifth Avenue was back with resounding energy. 

This Easter Sunday, mass was different. Our lives have been upended by a hidden threat that has taken many lives and filled our hearts with fear and anguish. Saint Peter’s was designed to represent a welcoming embrace from the church to the world, for people to come and see the Pope. It was empty this Easter. 

This is a time when we need to be reminded of Pope Francis’ blessing, the “Urbi et Orbi” (Latin for “to the city and the world”), from last Easter. In his blessing, he paid homage to Pious XII, who was the first Pope to speak on television, honoring the 70th anniversary of this event. Pope Francis also highlighted the power technology has for connecting Catholics and spreading the faith saying, “This anniversary provides me the opportunity to encourage Christian communities to use all the tools that technology makes available to proclaim the Good News of the Risen Christ, in order to communicate with each other rather than just contact each other.”

A year later, Catholics and Christians did just that — through video calls and live streams with their local parishes, and with Pope Francis himself through the Vatican channel. This past Sunday, I waved at the Pope again, only through my screen. I hope others that tuned into the broadcast felt the same peace I felt that day at the Square. A peace that can help us in this uncertain time.