The Vatican is the smallest country in the world. Until recently, I always thought of that fact as a neat bit of trivia and nothing more—kind of a, “Take that, Luxembourg!” A few weeks ago, as I stood shoulder-to-shoulder in St. Peter’s Square with 300,000 other people, I felt like I was indeed in a very small country.
I felt honored to be in attendance as our Pope, a man I consider a living saint, sent a woman who had been a living saint in our lifetime—Mother Teresa—on the road to official sainthood. It was a sacred event.
… which is why I really could not understand why a little Polish woman was elbowing me in the gut.
300,000’s a crowd
The crowd’s actions that day surprised me, as people pushed and shoved their way into the square, giving very little regard to the well-being or balance of fellow human beings around them.
Once we all crowded into the square, new problems sprung up.
Our group staked its claim. You know when you go to the beach, get a great spot, and then some other family comes and sits almost right on top of you? Imagine that happening to the nth degree. We found ourselves quickly surrounded by Spaniards, Bostonians, Germans, and Poles.
Getting the elbow
Next someone tried to push through the crowd, and as they pushed by, the crowd ebbed in such a way that I was now turned so that my feet were flat on the ground, but my torso was leaning to the left. And since it was so crowded, I couldn’t straighten myself.
And that’s when the Polish woman elbowed me.
I thought it was an accident at first, but when she did it again, I looked down. I saw a short woman in her 70s turned away from me, facing her husband. There was no way she could be intentionally hitting me, I thought, and turned my head back to say something to my sister, who was in our group.
And I got hit again. My eyes widened as I said through gritted teeth, “This old lady is elbowing me.” Apparently she was angry with me for standing so close to her, even though I had been there first!
The Vatican flag clubbing event
To make things even more bizarre, as I turned back to look at her, she was yelling about something to her husband, and angrily gesturing with a flag in her hand at the old woman from Boston in front of her (nearly rapping the woman on the back of the head). You guessed it—the Bostonian had been there first too.
As she yelled, I noticed that her weapon was none other than the Vatican flag!
My mind now fully boggled, I suddenly felt ready to burst. I wanted to shove everyone away from me and scream as loud as I could. I had not eaten breakfast, I knew I had another four hours of standing in the sun, and some septuagenarian was intent on elbowing my side.
I realized screaming wasn’t the best option, so I went another route. I prayed. I prayed the Hail Mary over and over. My sister laughed at my predicament, but I kept praying. Eventually, the elbowing stopped, and I was able to right myself. I continued to pray, just to be sure my freak-out urges had subsided.
That’s when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned slowly, as all my previous interactions with these 300,000 people that morning had left me on edge. The little Polish woman had done the tapping, but she no longer looked angry, nor was she beating anyone with a symbol of the governing body of the Church.
She shook a little container in her hand, smiled at me, and said, “Tic-tac?”
I took the two little candies, and she turned away from me and offered some to the old woman from Boston with a big smile.
The power of prayer and fresh breath
I confess, that as I recounted the story to the rest of my group later that day, I joked about the “bipolar Pole” who had made the beatification so memorable. After the laughter died down, though, I realized I had seen a very concrete, albeit bizarre, example of the power of prayer.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta spent her life doing small things with great love. That Polish woman’s small action of offering me a tiny breath mint changed my mood and made it possible for me to ignore all of the ugliness that I had seen up to that point, and focus on the beautiful ceremony, in front of a beautiful basilica, presided over by a man who is a beautiful example of prayer giving strength beyond what our physical selves can provide.
My side was a little sore, but my breath was fresh, and my soul refreshed.